From disabilities to art abilities

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Barbara Ruben

Susan Meyers works on an art project in the art therapy program at Iona Senior Services. She is “deconstructing” an earlier work to turn it into something new. An exhibit now at the Phillips Collection features artwork by Meyers and 30 other older adults in the program, all of whom have challenges due to Alzheimer’s, stroke and other conditions. Says Meyers, “This is my home. The art is my home.”
Photo courtesy of Iona Senior Services

Great art has often been associated to some degree with artists stalked by psychological conditions and other impairments. Vincent van Gogh, whose works are currently being displayed at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., is probably one of the first examples to come to mind.

So might it also be true that older adults with Alzheimer’s, traumatic brain injury or stroke might be able to communicate better via art than words?

The answer, at least in some cases, appears to be yes, as evidenced by another exhibit now at the Phillips Collection, called “Art and Wellness: Creative Aging.”

It showcases work by participants in an art therapy program jointly sponsored by the Phillips, the 92-year-old Dupont Circle museum, and Iona Senior Services, a D.C.-based nonprofit that provides a wide variety of services to adults 60 and over.

After viewing the work of Impressionist and modern art luminaries such as Mark Rothko, Paul Klee, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Georgia O’Keeffe, visitors to the Phillips can enter the gallery featuring works by Sidney Weintraub, Penelope Niland and 30 other area seniors.

Some of them are coping with serious health challenges that leave them grappling for words and turn once-familiar terrain into a thicket of confusion.

But when they begin to paint or draw, a kind of transformation takes place. A memory emerges or the soothing rhythm of sketching smoothes the edges of agitation and confusion.

Larry (who, like some of the participants, asked that his last name not be used) summed up his return to art, a former hobby of his, simply.

“It’s magic,” he said.

And that’s exactly the response Brooke Rosenblatt, who works with the program at the Phillips, is hoping for.

“The motivation for us to start this program really begins with the philosophical underpinnings of the museum,” she said. “Duncan Phillips founded it in 1921 after the sudden deaths of his father and brother. He believed strongly that art can impact wellbeing. He said that art helped give him the will to live.

“So this theme of creativity and wellness is part of our DNA, you might say,” said Rosenblatt, the museum’s manager of public programs and in-gallery interpretation.

This is the second year the Phillips has collaborated with Iona on the exhibit. Last year’s enthusiastic response by participants, their families and museum visitors helped spur the Phillips to expand the exhibit’s showing from one month to two. The current exhibit can be seen through Jan. 5.

Bringing back memories

In the grant-funded program, the Iona participants visit the Phillips once every other month to look at and discuss several pieces of art.

The next month, they go to Iona’s art studio in Northwest Washington to make their own creations, interpreting what they saw at the museum through the prism of their own experiences and creativity.

Thus, a 1922 oil painting of mountains, river and a brooding sky by American artist Rockwell Kent, is replicated in near perfect detail by one artist using watercolors, while another made a more abstract drawing of the scene.

“I think I have seen a place like this. I had the good fortune to fly with the U.S. Air Force, so I got to see a lot of places,” said Irving, painter of the realistic version.

Sidney Weintraub used watercolors to depict his more abstract interpretation of the painting. He said art stimulates his memory.

“While I’m working on art, life experiences do come back. I don’t see a one-to-one relationship, but it does spur my memory,” said Weintraub, who is turning to art for the first time.

“I’ve discovered things in me I didn’t know were there. I think it makes me a fuller person.”

“With individuals who are at end of life, as well as those faced with changes in their bodies and cognition, there’s a lot of loss,” said Jackie Sargent, Iona’s art therapist. “There’s a lot of changes happening.

“It’s kind of validating, reminding them they are not alone, that there is a community of people that is here that can help them through this experience,” she said.

Doris, an Iona participant, agrees: “Art is a special gift, and as long as you can follow it, you will never be lonely,” she said.

Sargent might ask targeted questions while the participants work on their art.

“Last year we had a conversation about an image with a clown, and so we had a conversation about masks. We made our own masks, with the idea it was inspired by the painting, but giving them the opportunity for their own deeper experience.

“We talked about instances when they felt they had to put on a mask and how that felt,” Sargent said.

Bertha found she could better understand modern art thanks to the program. “It’s amazing to know that you can take trash and turn it into art, even little things like leaves off the trees or a soda bottle,” she said.

“It can be turned into a beautiful, beautiful sight to see. You might see something one way and someone else will look at it differently, and that’s OK. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Rosemary had enjoyed water color painting when her daughter was a toddler, and has returned to it as she grapples with memory loss.

“It’s made me calmer and more observant of things around me. And it’s not every day you’re in a museum,” she said with a smile. Her water colors of a delicate red flower and a sailboat are in the exhibit.

The artists also rediscover a sense of joy and happiness as they work. Penelope Niland took one look at Joan Miro’s surrealist painting “The Red Sun” and laughed. “When I first saw it, I kind of giggled to myself...It’s playful.”

And this positive energy can continue when the participants go home and face new challenges.

“A lot of feedback I’ve gotten from families, especially with the exhibition, is ‘it’s so nice to see what they can still do,’” said Sargent, the art therapist. “They’ve been faced with doctors saying, ‘This is what’s wrong, and these are the changes, and this is what’s going to happen in the future. Prepare yourself,’ and all this negativity.

“So they come to this space and it’s about what they can still do. That pride of, ‘Oh my gosh, someone’s chosen my art to be put on display’ is such a motivation.”

“Art and Wellness: Creative Aging” is on display through Jan. 5, 2014 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st Street, NW, Washington, D.C., at the corner of Q Street.

For more information, see or call (202) 387-2151.