Gallery exhibits works by dementia program participants

Anna Miccolis, community art & education co-ordinator at the Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery, with paintings by local artists with dementia. Cathy Dobson

At first, the woman in her late 70s didn’t want to participate.

Having joined a gallery program designed for people with dementia, she hung back, refusing to try a hand at painting.

But, eventually, with encouragement from volunteers and her husband, she picked up a brush. Those first watercolours were tentative and covered just part of a page.

But as she returned month after month to the Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery (JNAAG), her confidence grew. The brushstrokes became bolder. Colour filled the page.

“The last time they were here, we had music playing and she was up dancing with her husband. It was amazing to see how comfortable she was,” says Vanessa Barnes, program co-ordinator of the Alzheimer Society of Sarnia-Lambton.

Barnes works with Anna Miccolis, the public gallery’s community art and education co-ordinator, to provide the program.

For the past five years, JNAAG has offered monthly tours for people with dementia and their care partners. The popular program currently has 17 participants. They come one afternoon a month to learn about the exhibits and do some painting of their own.

“Even people who weren’t overly creative in their younger years come out, have fun and meet new people,” said Barnes. “We also have a couple who painted their entire lives, and it’s awesome to see how much they enjoy it and how relaxing it is.”

“I’ve seen people really reticent to get involved, and then you see a switch turn on. They light up,” said Miccolis.  “It’s a very successful program.”

One reason, she believes, is it urges participants to offer opinions about the paintings they see at the gallery. People with dementia are not often asked what they think, said Miccolis.

“This validates a person’s perspective. It can also bring back memories that they might want to share with their group.”

Each month, the participants’ work is stowed away, ready to be evaluated at the end of the year by Miccolis and JNAAG curator Sonya Blazek. They select the best for a juried show that features art from both participants with dementia and their care partners.

This year’s show, Inspirational Moments, is on now until March 8 in the Link gallery.

Each painting is professionally mounted and framed and some are grouped with participants and care partners together.

“It’s a way to celebrate their abilities and talents,” said Miccolis.

As for the reluctant woman who wound up painting and dancing with enthusiasm, her first and most recent work is included to illustrate the change that’s taken place.

The Inspirational Moments program for people with dementia and their care partners runs year-round.  No experience is required and the program is free.  A few spaces are currently available.

To learn more or register, contact Vanessa Barnes at the Alzheimer Society of Sarnia-Lambton at 519-332-4444.

The Arts Journal reflects all things artistic in our community. Send your ideas to cathy.dobson@thesarniajournal.ca.