The Bealtaine artist residency aims to improve access to quality arts experiences for older people in care settings, to support artists who wish to work in this area and to positively impact on the activity ambitions of care settings. I applied for the residency as my work focuses on the brain, mind, human behaviour, and making interactive artworks. I was interested in how stories and memories are recalled and remembered, how we change, embellish and create new stories from our memories. A sensory garden forms part of the centre and one of the key artistic objectives was to make an interactive artwork with residents using living plants.
I spent the first half of the residency mostly talking with, interacting with and observing the Orchard Day Care Centre users. I had no experience of working with people affected by dementia before. I listened to their stories, and made note of their life stories, and noted their different interests and capabilities. Each week started off brand new, as there was no recollection from the users of who I was. Therefore, developing a rapport, with the intention of building on experiences to create an artistic outcome, seemed almost impossible in the first few weeks.
I used the large garden at the centre as a tool for one-on-one interaction with people. After inviting people out into the garden, talking and walking with them, and trying to use the plants and garden as conversation starters, I was hoping to bring the garden in some small way into the day care centre. I was interested in how the garden mirrored our minds; growth, organic, decay, learning, new connections being made and old ones forgotten. The tangled protein webs of a brain with Alzheimer’s mimics the tangled roots of plants and flowers.
I had a studio space on-site – it was large, bright and relatively private. It was integral as a quiet place to work one-on-one with the residents. For the duration of the residency, it was a papermaking studio, a story recording studio, a private space to think, research, draw and reflect on my own, a place to chat with the day care centre manager about the project, a place to display research and a video recording space.
Artist Marie Brett acted as my mentor throughout the project. We met in person three times during the residency, at the beginning, middle and end. Marie’s mentorship was beyond fantastic. She was incredibly hands on and took a detailed, systemic approach to each of our meetings, whilst also allowing time for wandering conversation and talking through problems. The mentorship was integral for my experience on this residency as issues of consent, privacy and healthcare were quite a new realm for me. Marie’s wealth of experience and open approach to listening and problem solving was key to the success of this type of residency.
Linda Shevlin was the project curator and paid a curatorial visit to the centre in the middle of the residency. This was a good opportunity to discuss potential artistic outcomes. I also visited Waterford Healing Arts Trust (WHAT) for a mentoring session with A/Arts Director Claire Meaney. I met with the WHAT artist in residence at that time, Ciara Harrison, and learned about her experience of working within an arts and health context.
Midway through the residency, I was intrigued by the collecting of stories, and the potential merging of stories. I wanted to bring together an ‘elastic’ narrative of everyone interacted with and who had shared something. I was interested in the lives of people, who they are and what they did, and how certain stories or memories for them had stuck more than others.
There was an ethical issue concerned with the stories, as I felt I had been told some things in confidence. I wanted to give the participants’ stories back to them in some way, to celebrate and highlight the lives of the people I had met, but I was mindful of the public/private issue here, especially regarding consent. It was very late into the residency when I decided to go with an original idea, and make handmade grass paper, using all organic materials from the garden, with the participants. I made some small batches as a physical object to record their stories on. This worked with some people and not with others.
Over time throughout the residency, I came to see dementia as an alternative access route for growth, and a different way of seeing the world. If our minds and our lived experience reflect the world in a chronological, linear format, what if having Alzheimer’s is a portal into another world, where memories and stories do not have to be linear or structured? What if new stories and situations can arise or be created, and be celebrated for not falling within others ‘realities’?
The residency culminated in an interactive light and sound installation with the residents. We created handmade paper using materials from the garden. The participants placed their handmade paper onto a sculpture made from multiple pruned branches of trees from the orchard. This installation lit up once touched. The handmade paper featured names, drawings, stories and quotes from the participants. The sculpture also sang with the residents’ voices when touched, a pre-recorded song that a participant had performed to me during a story recording session.
The installation celebrated the organic, ever changing memories that form the stories of our everyday lives – it is not important to me whether stories are true. It is important that they have been told, and listened to.
The ‘Orchard Stories’ Exhibition Statement can be viewed here.
I created a short abstract video of moving images, words and stories which was shot and edited over the course of the residency. This was shown to the participants, care workers and their families on the final day of the residency as part of the temporary installation.
The use of magazines in the centre is high; many residents like to pick them up and read them and look at the pictures. It is a format of short, easy to comprehend and accessible information. The magazine I produced is an outcome of the residency, but very much for the participants. There was a limited edition run. One copy was given to each participating resident and their family and multiple copies were left around the centre.
The residency was informally evaluated through artist reports mid-way and at the end of the residency and through a mentor report.
This residency was intense, slow paced, careful and gentle. It influenced my way of interacting and learning hugely. I learned to slow down. I learned to match the pace of the centre and the residents. I learnt to be patient, and not force my own desired outcome on the residents (this was hard). It made me want to create something that honoured the people I met. I had no desire to create artwork that explains or explained dementia to people. I had no desire to realise what was truth, or fact, or fiction. I came to realize the subtle response of a participant when she realised you were listening to her, and how she felt when she realised you weren’t. I came to the understanding that the repetition of words and phrases and stories is a way of staying alive for some people, or possibly of grounding themselves in a reality that is constantly shifting.
The issue of consent, both with the participants and their families, was of utmost importance, especially as I wanted to record participants’ stories and histories. This took a lot of time to gather; there was a series of layering of consent, both with the family members and participants themselves.
I think the manager and staff at Orchard Day Care Centre saw how an art project and art residency could develop, so this residency was important in shifting attitudes in terms of what art can be.
Documentation and Dissemination
I recorded stories, thoughts and memories from people that visited the centre via writing, sound, photography, video and drawing.
There was an end of residency event for the Orchard Day Care participants and their family members in December 2017 featuring the interactive installation and a video screening.
For the final public dissemination of the project, I documented certain elements of the process via photography. An end outcome was a publication in book format, which was completed in March 2018. The book I produced is an outcome of the residency, but very much for the participants with a limited edition run.
Alzheimer Society of Ireland, Waterford Healing Arts Trust