In normal times people aged over 65 come to the day centre. All are invited to participate in art activities. Of those who take part some require one-to-one attention. Some participate and enjoy the social aspect, chatting and sharing at a big table. Some like to discuss the direction of their art project and do some work at home. These same people have been invited to participate in ongoing art projects during Covid-19. Thirty-seven people were involved in the Christmas postal project and exhibition.
Art projects in Gairdín Mhuire are designed to give older people the opportunity to express themselves creatively through art and craft media in a relaxed and supportive community setting.
We set a theme for each year but allow this to change based on the needs and interests that develop over the year. We exhibit work and develop projects locally for the Féile na Bealtaine Arts Festival.
I feel it is vital to keep the connection, based on relationships and on valuing the various individuals who normally come to the centre, alive and active during the time of closure.
I will consider individual relationships I have developed in the process of facilitating art activities prior to and during lockdown. These stories will give some indication of how some people can remain creative without the in-community support of a day centre and how it may be difficult for others to do so.
Siobhán studied and practiced art as a mature student, making delicately coloured watercolour paintings. So when she lost fine control of her movements due to illness it was painful for her to see her own clumsy unintended marks. Having acknowledged this we moved to needle punch felt as the technique does not show the effect of shaky hands. In needle punch felting, coloured wool fibres are pushed through a fabric base using a simple tool. Colours can be blended and mixed in a similar way to paint.
Siobhán’s first piece was an image of water, sketched very much in her own style. After a holiday break she started a new piece based on Monet’s waterlilies. Siobhán said ‘this next may be my last one’. This concise summary that implied so much was quite touching to hear. I did not query it. She did some beautiful work but the following week she had lost track of her intentions for the piece.
The next image that Siobhán chose was the very same one – so it still resonated for her aesthetically but she had no memory of her recent work. She worked on it diligently and enjoyed finishing it with a warm water scrub outdoors. The changes were rapid so I simplified tasks and modelled the making of felt flowers and felt balls. But by now she found the soapy water unpleasant.
Siobhán enjoyed exploring the new, though in a simple and repetitive way. Most of her communication was through body language and facial expression as well as some words. I would offer a suggestion of what she meant and she would nod vigorously when I got it right. I enjoyed seeing her sign language improve as other things went downhill. She made a delicate cough and put her hand to her throat to explain why she wasn’t going to participate in a class. She twinkled her fingers in the air on another day to express delight. I witnessed the delicacy of her nature and core being by paying attention and keeping communication open and light – something I see as being integral to my job. Someone like Siobhán would have no possibility to work like this during lockdown.
I developed a friendly relationship with Noel based on chats on the periphery of the art class. It didn’t take long to understand what a rich life he had led. He married his life partner as a teenager, worked in a variety of jobs and businesses, some in the car industry, constantly adapting to new circumstances. He mostly enjoyed chatting in the sitting room area of the day centre with another friend who had problems with his vision. They painted a carnán or pile of natural sticks from a beach to make a brightly coloured and organic version of pic-a-stick. The game tests understanding of balance as sticks are withdrawn one by one without disturbing any other part of the pile. They had good fun with that; the colours helped with the visual impairment issue. And the rules of the game could be re-invented to suit the participants making it even more interesting.
We moved on to experimenting with making a clay sculpture that would represent Dingle. A photo of a round stone clochán started a stream of stories. When the first lockdown happened Noel was coiling card to make 3D shapes. During the summer I got a message on the grapevine about poppy plants he had ready for me. I loved that continuity of contact.
When the day centre closed to all normal activities I wanted to stay in touch with people I normally meet every week or two. I wrote some articles for the local paper. The first one included a quirky mandala colouring picture based on rural dogs, sheep and buildings as featured in one artist’s work from the day centre over the years. Another week the article was a reflection on listening to birdsong. I wrote about what I was seeing and experiencing hoping it would have resonance for the participants too. Gairdín Mhuire shared the articles via the centre’s expanded meal delivery service. This system having been established, I started to provide art packs with seasonal themes and thoughts. The packs had a drawing for colouring together with photographs and words for further inspiration.
In November 2020, we set up a window gallery in a building across the road from the day centre. We wanted the cohort served by Gairdín Mhuire to be visible and celebrated in the middle of the town. This new aspect was possible because of the flexible plans we had agreed with one of our funders, Ealaín na Gaeltachta.
In December, I created a Christmas art pack that was posted out to everyone associated with the day centre who had shown any interest in art activities. There was a blank card in the pack as well as inspirational images and a newsletter. The cards were to be returned and exhibited in the new gallery together with any ornaments and pictures people were inspired to create and contribute.
Noel’s Christmas card image of robins included a sketched in man-shed in the background. Ann who normally diligently knits for family and friends knitted colourful chain decorations and fuzzy Christmas trees for the windows. Mary gave us a lovely rural scene painted on a stone in the shape of a hill. And Amelia who never participated in art classes had a young friend colour her star picture. She has recently sent in a picture made by herself. My own favourite was a traditional wreath of holly leaves threaded together by Ellen.
The warm response to the Christmas project led us to keep the postal aspect as part of the art activity packs.
Our first window gallery exhibition in November 2020 featured felts made in the last year by Micheál O’Ceallacháin. Having honed his skills over the last couple of years, he was able to work freely on images from his own life during lockdown. One such image shows dark rocks and moving water, a very organic and personal view. In the second window, we displayed a selection of work from our Gan Teorann group exhibition in 2018.
The second exhibition featured the folk art of Ellen O’Donnell. She started to draw while in respite care in Dingle Community Hospital and continued drawing and painting at home. She depicted farming practices from the fifties, how turf was cut and how butter was made. Some of her pictures show children working and playing on the farm where she lived. I wrote a short piece in English and as Gaeilge to help people connect with her.
Our Christmas exhibition was displayed in the window from mid-December with cards and wishes for the community. A film sharing the experience of the exhibition can be viewed at https://youtu.be/y927Grq0m00
The February exhibition showcased group work from the art packs people receive at home.
The March exhibition had a bird theme with ceramics facilitated by artist Lone Bieter. Lone also works in the day centre and became involved in the gallery project in December.
A special show is taking place in May for Féile na Bealtaine Arts Festival.
I keep a journal / diary of the project as it develops.
There are regular meetings and chats with the day care centre’s nurse manager and with fellow artist facilitator Lone Beiter. We share the responses and feedback we have received through phone calls and personal contact.
I have been working on a series of overviews of individual histories of art pathways in relation to evolving changes in the person’s health. I have done this as part of my own reflection and as a way of consolidating my experiences into stories that can be shared with other art practitioners and people working in health services.
We were surprised by the warm and enthusiastic response to the Christmas art pack. Some people just burst into tears on seeing Maria, the centre’s nurse manager, when she called to their homes with the packs. Just seeing her reminded them of what they were missing – a place to comfortably spend time with friends. The art class is part of the vital architecture of being seen and known and within a community.
‘Derek was so thrilled to see his picture in the window. It made his day.‘ – Maria O’Brien, Nurse Manager
Micheál O’Ceallacháin, whose work was featured in the first window gallery exhibition, relayed the following message: ‘Mo grá agus mo cheoil thú as é seo. Táim ana shásta iad seo a fheiscint i Sráid an Doirín.’ A photo of Micheál at his window can be seen in the slideshow.
People opt in or out of art projects depending on personal matters such as health and wellness or simply being away with family members. Others don’t find it relevant to their lives right now.
‘I just want to be in the day centre with a couple of people to have a chat. I’ll let you know if I want [any art materials]‘ – Billy
Observing through my journal how the project has evolved and noting who participates, it becomes clear that only a certain cohort benefit by taking part. The art class is a setting for communication when the day centre is open. But art is an activity that only some people seek outside of this context. Others need encouragement. The artist brings unusual materials and techniques to enthuse the potential art participants. This cannot happen in the current context.
As an artist I wanted to maintain the authenticity of the relationships developed with people in the day centre. I have enjoyed using my daily life and environment as a source of connection. I get some satisfaction from finding and learning new ways to communicate. I don’t feel that it is sustainable to work in this way in the long term. It is an emergency solution.
Documentation and Dissemination
All art packs are stored in digital format.
Each window exhibition is photographed. Ellen O’Donnell’s artwork has been photographed individually as we have been given permission by her family to sell her work for fundraising purposes.
A short film documenting the Christmas exhibition is available in an English language version and Irish language version on YouTube.
We have occasional newsletters in the local West Kerry Live Advertiser.