A guest blog from Kate Eggleston-Wirtz, Multi-disciplinary Artist, on her arts and health work with the Museum and beyond, and its therapeutic benefits for people living with dementia.
I am a multi-disciplinary artist originally from the United States who has lived in England for over twenty years. I trained as an illustrator, which gave me a strong foundation for visual storytelling. Throughout my life I have had a keen interest in objects. Objects are tangible and emotive with the ability to connect people from the past to the present. After working for several years as an illustrator and graphic designer I began using symbolic objects to make three-dimensional artworks.
My current work is a combination of working creatively with people and making my own three-dimensional artworks. The artworks are often made in response to my workshops with people creatively exploring a subject together. Many of the artworks have been made in response to historical research. The artworks sometimes become interactive learning resources whilst other artworks have been purposely created to be reminiscence resources to spark memory when working with older people. I often use objects in my workshops giving participants something to touch, to focus on and engage with increasing the potential for social interaction.
One might ask what a socially engaged process-based creative practice is?
I believe a process-based practice begins with a creative facilitator who is flexible and has a person-centred approach. I am not an art teacher. I don’t teach a particular skill like how to draw or paint. I facilitate my workshops. I help make creative things happen. I don’t tell participants exactly what they should be doing or the exact materials they should be using. We explore and experiment creatively together without judgment. This person-centred approach works well with people of all ages and diverse skill-base.
In my workshops I begin by focusing on a particular theme, something everyone in the group can relate to. A theme gives cohesiveness to the workshop and to the group. There are no expectations as to what the final products should look like. The workshops are not intended to be art therapy sessions however there may be therapeutic outcomes. Participants may feel a sense of calm, a sense of relaxation, a sense of focus. Participants may discover insights into personal feelings or have memories triggered. Memories may lead to the telling of personal stories, which are shared with others often giving a sense of personal value to a participant’s own life story. During the workshops participants may use eye-hand coordination, other cognitive skills and stimulate different senses awakening different parts of the brain. All these experiences can potentially be therapeutic.
An example of this socially engaged processed-based practice is the work I delivered in 2016-2017 at Trafford General Hospital in Manchester, UK. In the summer of 2016, I was part of the Wings and Things Artist in Residence Project that took place at the hospital in partnership with The Whitworth and Manchester Museum. The four-week artist in residence built new relationships with patients and staff preparing for the arts and health research that followed in the autumn of 2016. During the residency I creatively worked on Wards 2, 4 and 6.
In response to this engagement work, I created three artworks that were to become resources to be used during the Not So Grim Up North Arts and Health Research that was delivered in November through February 2017.
Not So Grim Up North was a Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England funded project. Two of the project’s supporting partners were Manchester Museum and the Whitworth. This project investigated the health and wellbeing impacts of museum and gallery activities for people living with dementia, stroke survivors, and mental health service-users. My role was to deliver creative workshops working with people in different stages of dementia. I facilitated sessions one afternoon a week for six consecutive weeks working closely with researcher, Dr Nuala Morse who filmed the sessions and took notes. She also organised the participants’ consent forms.
Getting consent to film the participants was difficult as this required talking to family members. As a result we had a much smaller number of people participating. This was very different than delivering the Wings and Things Project where we did not have the restriction of gaining consent. Both a Whitworth Volunteer along with a member of hospital staff supported me in all sessions.
We worked on Wards 2 and 6. The majority of the work was set around a table. We also worked at bedside when participants were not well enough to come to the table. In all the sessions we offered a themed activity with options to draw or write along with exploring the three dimensional artworks. Examples of themes included: Flowers, Boats/seaside, Valentine’s Day and House. If participants were not interested in doing a creative activity, we also had my three-dimensional artworks to explore. Because these artworks were tactile, they worked well to engage those who were visually impaired.
The House theme worked very well during the research. Some participants were inspired to make their own house. Some participants drew maps of where their house was located whilst others were inspired to draw their own furniture they saw in magazines.
A ‘House and Garden’ theme was used for the workshops I delivered at the Museums for Everyone-Senior 2018 Conference at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA), in Seoul in December 2018. On Tuesday 4th December I worked with 30 museum professionals and artists to demonstrate the type of workshops I deliver with people living with dementia. I wore a hat with flowers like a garden with a house on it. I also wore a cardigan that had flowers on it. This helped to instill the subject. I provided different kinds of materials. Some of the materials I brought from England such as pages from a 1913 Blackpool Gazette Newspaper, playing cards cut out like flowers, maps, embroidery thread and ribbon. I brought a vintage cardboard dolls house for creative inspiration.
Other materials the MMCA provided such as paper, yarn and coloured plastic squares. I provided boxes that were in the shape of a house with a clear plastic front that looked like a window. I asked people to design their own house and select their materials. At the end of the session participants shared what their house was about. A couple of participants made their dream houses. One person used the Blackpool Gazette newspaper because it was old and she thought very valuable. One person made a house specifically for her daughter. Someone made a Dementia Café.
Another person said she didn’t know what to do so she enjoyed experimenting with the different materials. One young lady made a house that was her grandmother’s house. Her grandmother had recently passed away.
Finally, one of the participants said that she was a psychologist or counselor and was so excited to be able to do the creative work because she never was able to do it herself. She found making her house a healing experience. At the end of the session we placed all the houses together to make a village and photographed it.
The following day I delivered the same workshop focusing on the House and Garden theme working with 10 people living with early stages of dementia along with their Carers. Prior to the workshop, the group and I toured the Choi Jeong Hwa exhibition. There was an art installation mounted on the wall created out of a multitude of wooden washboards called ‘Grand Flower’. This was fortuitous, as I had brought my grandmother’s small washboard. I introduced the workshop by passing my washboard around the table for people to handle and connect with. The different materials had been placed on two carts that were wheeled around the table. Participants carefully selected their materials. One woman and her Carer were stuck in creating a house with a surrounding paddy field.
There was one man who was struggling and didn’t know what to do so I help him use a flower card template to trace flowers onto a piece of paper and he proceeded quite happily. Later, he cut out the flowers and his Carer helped him to glue them onto his house. One man was intent on writing, not making a house. He wrote about his granddaughter coming to his house to make biscuits. His wife made her own house that had hearts on it because the house was filled with love.
After this session one of the observers came up to me and asked me if I thought storytelling was really important in the workshops. I said ‘yes I do as sharing one’s story can make each person feel they have a voice and their life has had meaning and value. However, exploring materials and experimenting is just as important’.
For me working creatively with people in this way is so rewarding. I enjoy hearing people stories and facilitating creativity. Making art connects us and helps us feel good.