By Oren B. Helbok
I have a favorite Art Cart activity that works well with new groups, as an introduction: I pass out printer paper and markers and show them my own first name, drawn in big “bubble letters”; then I quickly decorate it to represent things important to me and that describe me, turning the “O” into a bicycle wheel, or my whole name into a steam locomotive. At a day camp in the summer of 2017, in a group of about fifty children, I came into the room and could not help but notice one boy in particular, about seven years old – loud, in constant motion, seemingly everywhere all of the time. The counselors got the group seated and attentive, and I described the project and then got out of the way: The children worked mostly quietly, and I walked around offering encouragement and occasional prompts to those who needed them. After twenty minutes, a boy – the same boy I had noticed earlier – came up to me to show me his drawing. He had carefully written “Kenny” in big block letters; on top of the “K” he had drawn a little person kicking a football, and the ball arced right through the uprights of the “Y”. This activity touched something deep inside Kenny, and his smile lit up the room.
A little while ago, I did the same activity with four Alzheimer’s patients at a nursing home, four women in their seventies and eighties. After asking each woman her name, I drew the letters and encouraged her to decorate them. The first Eleanor drew a sun, a flower, a cat, and a little person whom she labeled “Paul” – her late husband. The second Eleanor, sitting next to her, looked at the drawing of the cat and said “Oh, my husband and I had a cat, we loved that cat, we didn’t have a name for that cat, we just called it ‘Kitty’, it was a Siamese cat, and then it died and we could never find another Siamese cat. Do they still have Siamese cats?” Florence, sitting next to her, looked and looked at her name, and then she drew fine, Pointillist lines connecting each letter to the next. Ada, who always smiles, said “I have no idea what to do with this.” Well, Ada, I said, you could color the letters in; you could use stripes, or polka dots. And then the second Eleanor started to sing, a song that she knew as a child in the 1930s: “Ain’t she cute, ain’t she sweet, she wears white socks on her dirty feet.” All four women laughed. Then the second Eleanor sang “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning”, and then “America the Beautiful” and the other three joined in. Then they sang “Amazing Grace” together, and “My Country ’Tis of Thee”. Simply having their names in front of them helped reanimate their personalities.
Making art serves as a catalyst for many experiences; I hope these two stories provide a sense of the breadth and depth of the experiences that we see every day with the Art Cart – experiences that we believe improve the quality of life for all who have them.
Oren with a resident of Nazareth Memory Center; photo by the Press Enterprise's Bill Hughes