While Drawing Portraits By Claudia Bueler 2011
Art is a wonderful way to learn how to relate to people suffering from dementia. In observing elderly people during their creative process and later watching the results (aesthetics and perspective), we learn about their behaviour, their manner of perception, and the ways they handle their mental gaps. Being unable to cure the illness, we would ideally wish to be able to improve their attitude and the sensitivity of their interaction between generations: social caretakers, relatives and children and amongst the patients themselves.
As known in eastern art schools, meditation takes part of the creative process: before we even start with the art we are about to do, we sit. We generate a special moment of awareness, we feel the creative flow and we experience an empty space out of which art can be born.
According to Chögyam Trungpa, having a specific intention and following a goal in art is already a form of aggression. But our minds are constantly chasing after goals, and so normally does the artist ; his result proves his skills and shows both his expression and what he wants to insinuate. In the spiritual approach to art you learn to empty yourself from the goal, from hope and fear.
Having worked with elderly people with dementia many times I noticed, that the persons seem to be able to feel whether I am chasing after a goal in working with them. I also noticed, that when I meditate before starting the creative dialogue it makes a huge difference for the encounter to happen.
People with dementia are usually not able to connect any information. The past and the future can´t be reasonably thought of any more. Consequently they are unable to follow a goal, but live very much in the present moment and can be in a state without thoughts for many minutes. There they forget about goals or conditions. A person who is willing to enjoy the present moment together with them helps them to feel safe. In this very moment we generate an open space for the aimless state of the artist before he takes up the brush.
When I am working with elderly people I draw their portraits. It takes me about an hour to finish a drawing. In this time I practice Tonglen as much as possible. Practising while I’m drawing seems the best preparation for my everyday work with elderly people with dementia. I noticed that it is easier to hold the concentration of the practice, when I meditate in the morning. The demented people seem to feel the difference as well; a feeling of mildness or loving kindness fills the space between the model and myself.
In the second phase of the art project the drawings provide a template, which is consequently colored individually in the group. I call this setting “open atelier”, because it is open for everybody and, for dementia sufferers, there is no time limit.
The interest in looking at the portraits is strikingly high. Even people with very advanced dementia lean forward or stretch out their hands towards the portraits, and look at them for a long time. In general, we know little about the visual functions of old people with dementia. The question, “What do you see when you look at this drawing?” is usually answered with “I don’t know.” It is better to wait patiently until activity can be seen in the old person’s eye movements. It is a matter of not asking questions that are loaded with expectation. Again it´s about letting go off goals.
In creative work, it sometimes happens that you don’t think about what you are doing and simply relinquish yourself to an internally determined direction. If you find this moment together with a dementia sufferer, there is a good chance that he or she will let themselves be carried into the process. These creative moments bring us on. The careful, intensive and extended (over a few days) work on a portrait mobilises the functions of the working memory. The senses are active and they interconnect. Associations are made. Conversations that arise now can contain clues to, or directly express, the things that move the people involved. “The Creative Flow” is as if the artist were being borne by a stream, spontaneously, effortlessly. If these conditions are simultaneously met, they forget all their concerns and even forget themselves as something separate from what was happening, and they become a part of something greater. This description comes very close to the feeling into which we in the creative group and the dementia sufferers can release ourselves together. If we switch our gaze from the so-called “deficits” of dementia across to what is possible, this atmosphere can emerge and be enjoyed. With dementia sufferers, we get to know the unpredictability and abundance of the moment. Together we experience what a transformative power the moment can have.
The spiritual seeker may wonder, why to enter into this process for demented people could be good. As we are looking for the gap, we might find it ironical to seek moments of reconnection for demented. I find that the very process of coming and going, of disconnection and reconnection is a mutual learning process. We still looking for ways to understand a dementia sufferer so that we gain abilities to create a better environment for them and learn to handle their states of being stuck in tears and negativity. It is our deep wish to be able to at least guide the suffering persons out of their momentary state, so that they have a chance to stay peaceful in this weird illness state of no thoughts. It might be an openness to love too, who knows?
In the moment in which I see that the person reading a portrait has re-awakened the motive force , I offer them paint and a brush, and assistance to help them pursue the desire to paint. The first questions before they reach for paint, “Would you like to paint, too?” or “Which colour fits with this?” can also be distractions, and that is why it is important to focus the attention on the line drawing, allowing painting to take place as if it were secondary. The reach for paint usually happens on impulse rather than after consideration. It is only in exceptional cases that people colour their own portraits; it is more usual that a portrait becomes their own only through the use of paint. The emphasis here is on the manner of painting, the brushstrokes, the selection of the picture and the duration of their focus and action, not on the choice of colour or the recognisability of the image.
After the end of the “open atelier”, there is an exhibition opening. The participants are present. In formulating the presentation, I take care to engage with the pictures in a lively way. The result is not the artistic development of an individual, but the representation of the group of dementia sufferers. I call it “A Mirror to the Encounter”. In this mirror, each encounter with the members of the group appears in its individual light and every project has its own dynamic, its own characteristic features. Originally, the presentation was conceived as an exhibition solely for the participants in order to strengthen the bonds within the group and to honour the individual participants. It is now organized as a public event.
The “Artecura Project with Portraits”, especially, delivers a contribution to the understanding of dementia and promotes dialogue with the relatives. The “art” that has been produced in this creative process deepens the general understanding for the demented person. All the faces, all the portraits, are very present to the observer. They say, “Look at me. I am here. I have a face.”