Art as another voice for the brain

by Kathy Laurenhue on January 27, 2011

Until I realized I would be hard-pressed to earn a living at such a career in my small town, I nearly majored in art history. No artist myself, I am nevertheless struck by how people can communicate across cultures and language barriers with music, dance and art. In the last 20 years, I have been specifically interested in how these media help people with dementia who have lost their verbal voice continue to “speak up,” particularly through drawing and painting. The brain works in mysterious ways!

Recently, I asked for and received a review copy of the Terra Nova Films video “Art Collection: An Exploration of People with Dementia Expressing Themselves Creatively.” It is based on the work of Dr. Dalia Gottlieb-Tanaka of the Society for the Arts in Dementia Care and includes art from at least three countries (the U.S., Canada and Australia) collected over six years.

The most compelling part of the video comes at the end, which features the art of three specific people with dementia.

  • A former engineer creates fascinating highly detailed, colorful paintings filled with stripes, lines, geometric shapes and other abstract forms that seem well-suited to the mind of a man with his career.
  • To illustrate a remarkable form of perseveration (compulsive repetitive actions), an African-American woman with Frontal-Temporal Lobe Dementia is featured. She created dozens of bright and cheerful drawings of smiling women in African-style clothing, with each drawing remarkably similar except for the elaborate patterns in their dresses. (Unfortunately, no stills are available for reprint here.)
  • A woman who had once been a successful artist – whose early works are shown in still photographs – sits at an easel barely able to paint anymore herself. Her picture is essentially a scribble, and she lifts the brush to paint the easel rather than the paper. But next to her is a younger woman drawing an upright violin, and when encouraged, the older woman directs the younger woman to make specific lines, beginning with what seem like scraggly green vines coming off the upper body of the violin. In the end, under the older woman’s direction, the violin is transformed into a woman’s head with a jaunty hat – whimsical and delightful. The older woman is pleased with the result, commenting, “It makes you laugh. Don’t you think that’s a wonderful thing for a painting to do?”

There is actually relatively little video footage within the 20-minute film, but dozens of still photos of the art speak eloquently by themselves – and stopping the video for a discussion of specific art works would be an interesting exercise. Some of the pieces – most done in watercolors or pastels – show clear artistic talent that is lovely to look at. Others seem to express more tortured feelings that leave me wanting to know more about the artists. Almost all of the works in the collection for this video are colorful, even lyrical at times – lots of flowers, landscapes and undulating shapes. While they were undoubtedly chosen for their broad appeal, they also provide a clear message of the joy many people with dementia still find in life, a hopeful message for all of us.

If you would like to see this or other videos by Terra Nova Films, check out their catalog at http://www.terranova.org/Catalog.asp. I also wrote about dementia and art in December. LaDoris “Sam” Heinly has written a terrific book about leading art classes with people with dementia. See http://caregivercheer.com/2010/12/art-and-alzheimers-disease/.

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