Building Blocks of Memory
At the end of last year my frequent and favourite co-collaborator/co-conspirator Julie Poi Kelly and I took on a new participatory art project. An EOI went out via the F Project looking for artists interesting in providing an art program for a memory loss support group. Julie and I decided that this would be a good fit for our collective aims and put together a draft program that was selected to run.
as always you can enlarge these images by clicking on them 🙂
We began with the idea of creating a small series of wooden sculptures. These small objects would have a number of visual and tactile surfaces. They were designed to be handled and could be assembled in various formations. The interconnecting blocks were a metaphor for memories that are held in neural connections and in the connections between people.
The program grew out of the Café Style Support Program provided by Warrnambool City Council for people with dementia and their carers. Our group met once a month from December 2014 until May 2015. Together we would share lunch before setting about creating artworks. Each couple was asked to select a set of six or so blank blocks which would be used as the basis for creating autobiographical, collage based artworks.
One of the things I most valued about this program was the space it created for carers. People whose worlds were in a state of immense transformation due to the effect of dementia upon their loved one were able to find companionship, and a voice, alongside others who knew, all too intimately, the experience and heartbreak brought by this disease. We began this project with about eight couples. We lost one or two because they found that our art program wasn’t what they were looking for, we sadly lost another because the disease claimed the life of one partner and ended the carer role for the remaining party. We were given privileged insight into these people’s worlds- and the compassion, frustration, despair and love their journeys of transition inspired.
Five couples completed their artworks and agreed to exhibit in a group show at The Artery in July 2015. The exhibition was titled “Glancing at Glimpses“, a titled coined by one of our talented participants Lyn Turner- she said that this captured the experience of both the carers and their partners. We thought that it was also a perfect description of the artworks.
Julie & I had wanted to present these artworks as an interconnected installation. Des & Helen Bunyon of Customs House Gallery kindly lent us plinths which we used as the base of the work. We spent a fortnight working in Julie’s shed to create the finished work. Altogether the work is an ensemble of the five participant’s blocks and two other sets of blocks- one made for Julie & I, and another set made by the Carer Respite Officer who managed the program, Tina Larden. We arranged each set of blocks together and then created connecting pieces to create an intertwining artwork that captures ideas of relationships, community and memory.
Here’s an excerpt from our catalogue:
“Despite our lofty artistic ambitions this project was not about the nuances of fine art. It was not even especially about the artworks made or the exhibition that follows. This project was about people coming together, to share their experiences and to support each other. While participants crafted wooden blocks with their own images and memories they formed connections between one another. Life is about connections: the connections between ourselves and our loved ones, with community, with places and experiences, and the neural connections through which we form our sense of self.
This installation invites you to glance at these glimpses of life, to contemplate the layers of rich connection, to imagine the connections yet to be made and to recognise the potential connections that are left unmade.”
This project worked as a participatory art program and it also operated to create a very special space that was essentially a gift to the community. I have contemplated the function of art a lot over the last few years. While projects like this have therapeutic outcomes they are not art therapy in the strict sense. Art therapy is rightly concerned with the process and the impact on the individual participants. Whilst these concerns are central in projects like ours it is also the other dimension of exhibiting the work, creating the space which is vitally important- and very much a community service. Art gives forms to complex feelings and experiences, it provides insights into worlds which are otherwise “other”, obscured and unknown. Glancing at Glimpses was a very personal offering that promoted understanding and empathy for those able to contemplate it.