Earlier this year Sam Metz (my colleague from Nottingham Contemporary) and I co-facilitated a series of five creative sessions. These were for people with early to mid-stages of dementia at Newholme Hospital in Bakewell, Derbyshire. We devised the sessions in consultation with our fellow Associate Artists Jo Dacombe and Gillian Brent (who will be delivering the bulk of the second wave of the intervention in Chesterfield in 2015).
We devised a provisional programme of questions to be asked, objects to be handled, works to be discussed and techniques to be explored. Each week one of us would ‘lead’ the session, sourcing the materials and objects and doing most of the facilitation, though there was always an overlap.
Sam took the lead on September 12th, when we explored Kathy Prendergast’s sculptural installation (Land, 1980). She provided some textile scarps and invited us to make mini landscapes on card, using the velvety material she’d sourced, and then draw (or otherwise respond to) these imagined landscapes.
One participant began to make a garment. Several enjoyed moulding the fabric and imagining hills and mountains (one participant had been a mountain climber of some repute) and most drew or painted something.
However, one participant, G, let it be known that he didn’t like to take the sessions ‘too seriously’ and tried to remain slightly aloof, as he had done the previous week. Whilst his wife was working, he talked to me about his love of music, with a genuine passion. He told me how ‘many years ago’ he used to play the accordion in a dance band. We had a conversation about the relative merits of chromatic piano and button accordions, and diatonic accordions too. He clearly knew his stuff, and considered the chromatic piano accordion to be the superior instrument because of its versatility. Given that I (still) play the accordion, it seemed appropriate to suggest that I should bring one in for him to try out. So I said I’d bring an accordion to the next session, if he was willing to play it. He said he’d be ‘more than willing’.
The following week I intended to introduce the participants to the ‘somewhat abstract’ work of Daniel Sinsel, in particular, his painting of a strip of ribbon (Untitled, 2012). The ‘anticipated outcome’ for participants was printmaking of some description (I was demonstrating monotype and direct printmaking).
However, this being the last occasion on which I could bring in an instrument in for G to try out, I brought my 72 Bass Hohner Piano Accordion (a classic of its genre)! I played a couple of tunes, at the beginning of the session, which the participants enjoyed, and then handed it over to G. He eagerly played a few tunes too, despite not having played for ‘several decades’.
After a slightly shaky start he played several hits from the post war era with relish and panache. He clearly enjoyed the positive response he got from staff and participants, and others passing, who came in to the activity room to investigate the source of the merriment.
I feel G very much benefited from this experience, as it enhanced his relationship with the entire project. He was more engaged afterwards than he had been during the previous four weeks. And, according to Sam, this engagement lasted for the duration of the intervention.
At the end of each session, we asked for someone to ‘curate’ and exhibition of the work produced. G had volunteered to be curator the previous week and, although he had forgotten this, he took the job very seriously when I reminded him. Not only did he direct me, but he diligently picked up small items of litter from the floor and cleaned ink stains from the surface of the TV (which actually functioned as a wide shelf when the large flat screen TV was recessed/not in use), so that the exhibition area looked ‘presentable’. His wife was impressed by his attention to detail, which she said she had ‘never seen before’
I feel that G’s enhanced commitment to the project following his role as entertainer, and indeed, his role as entertainer, are examples of the sorts of ‘unexpected outcomes’ that are so often the most meaningful outcomes during such interventions. These are the ‘soft’ outcomes that may have little currency within academic research but do, nevertheless, attest the power of creativity to ‘open doors’ that might otherwise remain closed.