I have wondered if art has an effect on healing of minds, not just bodies. Yesterday, I went to an art show where six artists of different disciplines were placed in dementia care settings and looked at the different arts they produced- ranging from poetry to paintings. In one of the comments, the writer wondered whether the quality or the content of the art work was less important than the fact that it was being made at all. Was the art condescending in its presentation? David Clegg, artist and founder of the Trebus project, which documents the lives of dementia patients, says “I have been around a few care homes now and the level of individual care or therapy is horrendous – bingo or painting. I am not anti art therapy, but it’s a long time since I have seen anything that was accessible, enjoyable and relevant. There isn’t much fun in care homes.”
According to Karen Haller, a creative consultant, art per se, does not heal- it is the act of producing the art that heals. I agree. In my opinion, creation of the art is more important on the person doing it rather than on the viewer. David Clegg says, “I got a lot of very good responses from families who said they saw their relatives change before their eyes. One woman said she got her mum back for a while. I think what we’ve got reveals something really true and honest about the sad, funny, chaotic interior world of people with dementia and mental illness, which is a bit uncomfortable but I think really important. One of the disturbing and distinctive features of dementia is that people undergo personality changes – they are not the mums and dads that their children knew. One old lady developed a taste for Motörhead.”
At another event, I heard from Japanese artists who are working with the victims of the March 2011 Tsunami and the subsequent even more catastrophic nuclear disaster at Fukushima about how art is being used as form of expression of sorrow and participation. This made me think quite deeply about I had previously viewed art made by others- particularly those with less physical ability than others. Of course, there are savants, like Stephen Wiltshire, an artist who draws and paints detailed cityscapes, and is autistic. Coincidentally, I was sent a link today to a programme made by an architect who had explored a city (Portland in the USA) entirely through sounds. I wondered then if that was the way, the city sounds like to blind people, rather than sighted people who only view the city and never hear anything, especially with ears plugged to music or mobile phones. So in fact, people with mental or physical disabilities can teach us more about the physical environment than we care to know.
I reflected on how I ‘superior’ or complete I have felt in the past to people with less physical abilities than myself and consequently, learnt less about the world and about myself. It was certainly a humbling experience for me this week. I have learnt not only to respect others’ art and expression but also appreciate my own work and myself (something that I, in the past, had found difficult). This is holistic healing. The Trebus Project was named in honour of Edmund Trebus, a Polish war veteran, who filled his house with things thest of the world had decided were rubbish, convinced that in time a use would be found for them. Our minds with all their experiences, feelings and emotions are also a great storehouse for our art and consequently through those, we can heal ourselves- both mind and body.