Healing through Art

Creative Encounters: Arts & Dementia at AGWA

Brian Robinson ... and meanwhile back on earth the blooms continue to flourish 2013 (detail). Wood, plastic, steel, synthetic polymer paint, feathers, plant fibre and shell, 200 x 350 x 50 cm. State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia. Purchased through The Leah Jane Cohen Bequest, Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation, 2014. © Brian Robinson, 2013.

Published by AGWA    |   18 June 2021

Anyone who loves art can appreciate its unique capacity to heal, inspire and strengthen our connections with the world and each other. The Gallery’s long-running Artistic Adventures program, a specialised series of tours and workshops for people living with dementia, is one initiative that has shown the profound impact of artmaking and creativity across its nearly ten-year span. Since its establishment in 2012, these regular sessions have provided a space for people living with dementia, along with their carers and support networks, to take part in conversation, interpretation and self-expression through engaging with art at AGWA.

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I am richer in mind and spirit by attending these workshops.

Workshop participant
Art and Dementia

Artistic Adventures Workshop at AGWA, March 2021. Photo: Suresh Manievannan.

Recognising the wide impact of this program, the AGWA Foundation has this year aimed its Annual Appeal at establishing a broader program for people living with dementia and their support networks, Creative Encounters: Arts & Dementia at AGWA. This five-year, Gallery based program will bring people living with dementia and their carers to the fore and highlight the important role of the arts for wellbeing. A research component in partnership with UWA’s Centre for Social Impact will look to illuminate the shared experiences of people living with dementia and their families and carers, along with associated staff and guides at AGWA. These insights, together with the input and guidance from Dementia peak bodies, aged care advocates and allied health professionals, will inspire resources and publication outcomes for the arts community and beyond, potentially benefitting some 472,000 Australians living today with dementia and their 1.6 million carers. It is an exciting stage of expansion for the central Artistic Adventures program first created by Alzheimer’s Australia Art Therapist Jackie Lewis and now continuing in partnership with not-for-profit association Mind the Change.

As an insight into how Artistic Adventures workshops unfold at the Gallery, we sat in on a recent session facilitated by AGWA Manager of Learning and Creativity Research, Lilly Blue, who has established a rewarding relationship with many of the regular participants and their partners and carers.

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Building on an original concept developed in collaboration with local artist Eveline Kotai, Horizontal Geometries, Lilly introduced the group to Ghost City, a deceptively simple activity which offers the opportunity to explore and reimagine urban space. Monochromatic blocks of different sizes can be arranged and assembled into practically limitless variations and structures, emphasising principles of impermanence, recycling and collaboration. Together, the group built up an original cityscape, with small clusters of blocks extending into sprawling grid-like patterns as each participants’ creation was connected to others. These were then translated onto small relief sculptures which participants decorated with patterns and drawings they designed themselves.

AGWA Manager of Learning and Creativity Research, Lilly Blue introducing Ghost City, a concept developed in collaboration with artist Eveline Kotai.

AGWA Manager of Learning and Creativity Research, Lilly Blue introducing Ghost City, a concept developed in collaboration with artist Eveline Kotai.

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As an artist and educator, I am deeply inspired by the enthusiasm, generosity and courage of participants as they engage with challenging new experiences and share their personal insights. I think offering artist-led experiences in a studio environment gives a sense of permission to experiment and take risks. I am excited by the impact the widened scope of a five-year program, and the commissioning of Art and Dementia specific research, will bring to the community and AGWA.

Lilly Blue
AGWA Manager of Learning and Creativity Research

One of the most important aspects of the Artistic Adventures experience is its relaxed and informal atmosphere, where participants feel free to express themselves without fear of judgement or appraisal. Workshop sessions often feature music, which was this time of their own choosing, with songs spontaneously selected to create a soundtrack that ranged from jazz to ABBA to Israeli folk dance. Monthly guided tours with Voluntary Gallery Guides provide a similarly unpressured environment, allowing participants to explore how works of art can encourage conversation, contribute knowledge, engage in interpretation, express emotions and recall memories. Robyn Brockman attended Artistic Adventures with her best friend Jen for several years and treasures the memories of this time spent together: "We both enjoyed the interaction with other people, and it gave me a chance to see and talk with other Carers. The workshops made me personally feel joyful." 

Arts and Dementia Artistic Voluntary Guided Tours

Brian Robinson ... and meanwhile back on earth the blooms continue to flourish 2013 (detail). Wood, plastic, steel, synthetic polymer paint, feathers, plant fibre and shell, 200 x 350 x 50 cm. State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia. Purchased through The Leah Jane Cohen Bequest, Art Gallery of Western Australia Foundation, 2014. © Brian Robinson, 2013.

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I got to do some art and so did Jen, but I didn’t have to feel totally responsible for Jen’s art piece. Generally, someone helped out, and if it was someone she clicked with, she completed it and felt so pleased with herself.

Robyn Brockman
Workshop participant

Facilitator Althea Gordon of Mind the Change knows firsthand the benefits of an art-based program. We spoke to her about her own experiences as both a facilitator and a family member of a participant.

"[Attending these workshops] made me feel excited and joyful, because I could see how much joy and excitement my Mum was experiencing. It was an important structure to my Mum’s monthly routine. Once a fortnight she got to be the creative soul she’s always been, and do so in a supported environment: an environment where she was understood, nothing was ‘wrong’, nothing could ‘go wrong’ and she really thrived in that environment. She became the person I knew so well again, the Mum who was full of creative confidence and big laughs, the Mum who was full of ideas and suggestions for not only her own works but for others around her. Nothing else gave her that light. She used to be an amazing seamstress and artist, and due to her dementia had lost a lot of her creative abilities. These sessions gave her an opportunity to succeed in this area once again. This program also created a friendship circle that was like no other. Informal peer to peer support is so valuable, even as a secondary outcome from programs like these."

Should you wish to support our expanded Arts and Dementia program, please make your tax-deductible donation prior to 30 June using the donation button below.

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