Connecting Through Art – Creating Artistic Identities & Relationships

The Villager, 2019

Chicagoans were still shivering from the biting chill of a polar vortex when Elsie M. and her son bundled into a warm bus headed to a private art opening at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. With them were art therapist, Casey Pax, then a SAIC graduate student, and several other residents from Central Baptist Village’s mid-stage memory care unit. As the bus travelled from Norridge to Michigan Avenue, the excitement was palpable; Elsie and the other residents were about to see their own artwork on the walls of the Institute.

As part of her master’s thesis, Pax adapted an award-winning, evidence-based program, Opening Minds Through Art (OMA), for the residents and student volunteers at CBV. Opening Minds uses art to forge intergenerational relationships, provide opportunities for creative expression and break down for teens the barriers and stigma associated with dementia. For eight months, Elsie and other residents paired up with students from nearby Ridgewood High School. The goal? To get to know one another and make art. Even if no art was made, the project would successfully create friendships across generations. But week after week the residents sat and talked and laughed with their student volunteers and created luminous works of abstract art using watercolor, acrylic and ink. “I’ve never been an artist in my life,” says Elsie. “I made pictures that I’m proud of.”

When Casey shared the news that their artwork was going to be exhibited at the SAIC, the residents were thrilled. “I was happy and proud,” Elsie admits. “And surprised, because I never thought of myself as having anything hanging in an art gallery.”

Helping individuals discover a new part of themselves and to create a new, artistic identity that exists independent of memory is just one way that art programs like OMA are invaluable to CBV residents. As memory and skills retreat, the imagination remains alive and vibrant, though not necessarily visible to the rest of the world. “We have to see the creation of new relationships and the creation of new experiences as equally important aspects to someone’s well-being,” says Pax. “The creative side and the drive for genuine connection that residents with and without dementia have shouldn’t be ignored.”