As an artist working on the Arts for Health Partnership programme in West Cork, I work with older people in hospitals and day centres across a number of healthcare settings. It is intrinsic to my practice to develop ways that most effectively communicate with, to, and for people experiencing cognitive difficulty.
My objective was to illuminate what Oliver Sacks referred to as the ‘inner state’ – ‘the situation’ of the person experiencing dementia – and then to ask an audience to take time to empathically relate to the work. In this way the process of moving through the exhibition immerses the viewer in the lived sensations and perceptions of those who have inspired its making.
West Cork Arts Centre (WCAC) awarded me a 10-week studio residency. Part of the residency included an agreed commitment to engage with the wider community. A number of formal and informal engagements were put in place. Open Studio time brought a critical collaboration with invited members of the public, most of whom had a relative experiencing memory loss or cognitive difficulties. The nature of the cross artform programme at Uillinn, and also in my collaborative practice, brought interesting levels of engagement with the other artists, poets, actors and dancers in residence. These encounters directly and indirectly influenced my outcomes.
These Tangled Threads took its name from my first found object of the residency, a sewing box. Moths had eaten the silk inner cover; I used the threads inside to embroider a PET scan of someone with Alzheimer’s disease onto this disturbed silk. The tangled threads of tau protein typical of Alzheimer’s became the fitting title for the work. Because this work was so directly involved with processes of thinking, I jotted down my thoughts and found that poetry served to open out some of the narratives embedded within the work. I decided to ‘come out’ as a poet (!) and show the poems beside the pieces that had inspired them.
I previously studied Anthropology of Art so I am fascinated by how people use objects to hold ideas about who they are. For example, the mantelpiece with our knick-knack collection of memories becomes the anchor that holds our connection to our friends and family as well as our past self. In this exhibition, I was quietly asking the question, ‘What happens to us when these resonant objects are removed?’ as this is what happens when we take someone out of their home and place them in care settings. Watching a 92-year-old person’s extreme effort to climb a stairwell inspired the poem that I attached to the stairs. The words then had to be read as you climbed, seeking to place the viewer in her shoes.
These Tangled Threads was exhibited at Uillinn as part of the 2015 Skibbereen Arts Festival.
The work was installed over the five floors of concrete and breezeblock stairwell of the Uillinn tower building. This setting provided an ideal space to experience the dislocation and isolation felt by people who are moved away from the objects and environment that ground their sense of identity and selfhood. Climbing and encountering the work at turns and junctions led the audience on a journey of accumulated meaning.
The stairwell poem ‘Climb’ inspired Rusty Frog Youth Theatre, based at Uillinn, to create a performance piece. This interaction was one of many informal collaborations that became intrinsic to the residency experience.
The evaluation process was quite informal. Justine Foster, Programme Manager at Uillinn, met with me regularly to reflect and discuss ideas for development. WCAC provided a formal feedback form (a context for reflection on the residency), a comments book was available for visitors and the workshop bookings procedure provided quantitative feedback. However, it is in writing this case study for artsandhealth.ie that I realise the evaluation process is still ongoing and there is a lot more to say on the subject!
WCAC reported a high level of engagement and positive visitor response:
‘The mirror piece was particularly poignant as it immediately reflected my misunderstanding of my mother’s state of mind.’
‘Voices were saying, “I have something to say, please hear differently; something to show, please see differently; something to hear, please speak differently”.’
‘The work kept pulling me back, it challenged and stimulated me and this I enjoyed and gained from.’
The exhibition provided focus to talk about all aspects of my work as an Arts for Health artist and also as a gallery educator on WCAC’s ‘In the Picture’, a programme of gallery tours for people with dementia.
In general, I find the process of engagement is reflexive and I use what I learn to feed back into my Arts for Health work. I am exploring the ways in which I can use this learning to create works of art that are meaningful to people experiencing cognitive problems.
This work was made with the generous provision of studio and support from WCAC. However, I had the financial limitations of working without a grant or stipend during the
residency. I hope that with further support I can tour this exhibition and produce a book of the images and poetry.
Documentation and Dissemination
The work was visually documented throughout and covered on West Cork Arts Centre’s website.
Midway during the residency, President Michael D. Higgins and his wife Sabina visited the studio resulting in a great deal of media and community attention. The President was very interested in the work and spoke about his deep commitment to arts access for all.
Uillinn poet in resident Afric McGlinchy, residing in the studio next door, wrote a poem about the work, ‘Keep Net’, published in her collection And we wonder.
My artist talks were well attended with lots of interest on many levels.
I had a lively engagement with local school children in the studio, talking about artistic process, making meaning in art, and their own experiences of elders with dementia.
West Cork Art Centre