Awakening a lifetime

Access Art tours at BMoCA use art to open conversations with people with Alzheimer’s and dementia

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Courtesy of BMoCA

It’s a warm spring day when John, dressed in a red plaid shirt with notes peeking out of the breast pocket, the first few scrawled pencil lines of which read yesterday’s date and “7:49 a, wind blowing from the west very hard,” and tan corduroys that sag in the seat, pauses on the sidewalk in front of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. He looks up at the sign over the entrance, then down at the door, up again to the sign, then his hand reaches for the door.

He starts a sentence, fumbles, and Nicole Dial- Kay, BMoCA’s education coordinator, helps. “Are you here for the program this afternoon?”

He is.

She shows him back to a row of fold-up seats that frame Robbie Rowlands’ “if this light can hold,” where he joins another attendee, Dan, and his wife, as well as staff and volunteers from the Alzheimer’s Association Colorado Chapter who have gathered for the “Access Art” tour for individuals with Alzheimer’s and dementia. The program is modeled after “Meet Me at MoMA,” one of an increasing number of programs that look at ways to engage with people living with these diseases and offer something that might improve their quality of life, or at least give them a good reason to get out of the house. Docents are trained specifically in how to engage people living with dementia; at BMoCA, the questions invite attendees to reminisce and engage with the artwork, to share about their lives and their memories.

During this spring’s exhibit, Substrate, for which BMoCA invited artists to tear up the soon-to-be-replaced floors, they peered into opened floorboards and walls, the bowels of the museum in some ways, admiring the various vintages of nails and screws still in the sawdust. They spoke of imagined stories, and of the memories of working with their hands and wood and what might have left the marks in the wood they can still see — scar marks from saws and memorials of bent-over nails.

“Besides looking at this piece, you can smell it, too,” observes T’Alyne, the museum educator leading the tour.

“I’ve completely lost my sense of smell,” John says, “I can imagine what sawdust could smell like.”

For his installation piece, Rowland cut a diagonal strip out of the hundred-year-old wood floor and up the drywall to the ceiling and rolled it up into a spiral. But John walks past it to the place where drywall has been sliced away to reveal an opaque window and declares, “This place in it is the place I like best.”

He reaches into the open space between the drywall and the glass and brick so far that his hand disappears past the shining gold wedding band, which catches the light as he draws it back out.

Dan stands astride the split in the floor and, asks, pointing to the crossbeams and sawdust and opening in the floor, “Is this a piece of art right here?”

It is, T’Alyne assures him.

Still looking into the gash in the floor, Dan observes, “If you stepped on it, you’re going right through to the basement.”

They begin to contemplate what’s in the basement. Dead bodies, Dan suggests. Turns out, there’s a window into the basement — for “Platform for Viewing,” Adam Batemen cut out a portion of the floor and built it into an above-ground walkway, a viewing area like that from a national park, that looks down on the now plexi-glass ceiling of the offices in the basement where a museum staff member sits at work.

“Where do you remember seeing walkways like this?” T’Alyne asks, and sure enough, Dan remembers national parks. But he’s stuck on what’s in the basement — in those file cabinets, behind the staff member, he says, there must be dead people’s heads.

“You’re really going wild today,” T’Alyne observes.

“Well, I’m in BMoCA,” he says. John wanders back to “if this light can hold” and steps right between the hip-height curls of floorboards.

“What do you think?” T’Alyne asks.

“Oh, I love this one,” he says.

She guides the tour to the next gallery, where the responsive installation “Sweep” awaits. Small, binocular-like lenses positioned where the wall meets the ceiling sense the motion in the gallery, trigger the suspended wooden rods to flick back and forth, tapping across the floor as they go. Everyone walks toward the sensors, waving their arms and watching the rods scatter.

T’Alyne asks questions like, does this remind them of a childhood, of playing in the woods? Where have they been before that this looks similar to?

John chases one rod back and forth with his finger, hides just around the corner from it and then charges the piece, shuffle steps back and forth in front of it.

“That’s a strange god damn…” he begins. He’s the only one still watching “Sweep” — everyone else having stepped back or walked away to examine another piece.

John starts dancing. “Sweep” dances back at him.

If there’s a word to summarize their responses to the artwork, it’s uninhibited. Neither is shy about the thoughts and feelings that arise in front of these admittedly high-concept pieces.

For the Access Art tour during the previous exhibition, on Romanian painters, a group of roughly 30 attendees sat down before two of the artworks and discussed them for an hour. Just from listening to the conversation, the caretakers and the individuals with Alzheimer’s and dementia couldn’t be sorted from one another, T’Alyne says.

“The ones that surprise me are when they” — she brings both hands forward and widens her eyes — “engage,” T’Alyne says.

BMoCA’s east gallery circles its central staircase. The tour walks up one side, then back out and around to the other side of that circle. By the time they get there, John has gotten disoriented.

“Remember talking about the people?” T’Alyne prompts, reminding him of his observation that Theresa Anderson’s installation of textiles, feathers and reclaimed wood had made him think of a circle of African drummers. The smell of the reclaimed wood reminds him of cedar or oak, he says, and he puts his nose right up to the sculpture. Suddenly, he’s talking about being a tree farmer, growing ever-thirsty junipers.

His eyes light on me, the reporter.

“Why are you writing so much and not saying anything?” he asks.

I explain that I’m writing a story about this new program the museum is doing.

He tells me that he’d seen an ad for the exhibition in the newspaper and knew that he wanted to see it, and then heard about the event.

“I knew that I was going to go to it and then they gave me a date, so it was all copacetic,” he says.

I ask what made him want to come see the exhibition.

“I was drawn by… I can’t remember what was said, but in the comments about it,” he says.

BMoCA’s model, “Meet Me At MoMA,” which launched in 2006, began as an offshoot of the I’m Still Here Foundation’s ARTZ: Artists for Alzheimer’s nonprofit initiative to promote the creative and cultural lives of people living with Alzheimer’s. They’ve since worked with the Louvre in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the National Gallery of Australia and the Tribeca Film Institute, as well as about 30 museums around the country, and reached more than 15,000 people.

The program started with one-on-one sessions between artists and people who were homebound or in assisted living or memory care facilities, says Sean Caulfield, creative director for ARTZ and I’m Still Here Foundation.

“I think it’s a way to demonstrate that all of us have much more in common that we have differences,” Caulfield says. “And I knew from my work of seeing people engage with art who happen to have dementia that personhood emerges. … Having the dementia diagnosis — there’s nothing about that that should prevent somebody from going to a museum and seeing art. It’s also a failure-free experience, so it enables people to simply be themselves and not have to worry about coming up with the right answer or simply saying anything at all.”

Early in the process of developing the programs, they taped the first 10 minutes of a tour, and the last 10.

“What that did was it showed the difference between when someone arrives and there would be a certain degree of anxiety maybe some apprehension, reluctance to participate, and just a general sense of what is going on here, what am I supposed to be doing, does my family know I’m here?” Caulfield says. “Then the last 10 minutes showed people who are just completely at ease. They weren’t concerned with things. … They were engaged with the artwork. Their affect had changed completely.”

Docents even learned how to engage with people whose aphasia, a loss of ability to speak, made verbal communication difficult, and so used a smile, a frown or a tapping foot to join the conversation. No one is put on the spot, but all participation is equally acknowledged, and people in all stages of Alzheimer’s are welcome.

“The artwork itself is not the main thing, it’s the notion of getting out there into the community, being part of society, being asked for your opinion,” he says. “That’s something that connects all of us as human beings. Too often people are warehoused and just assumed to be no longer with us. They might be called patients or sufferers, and they’re there in the present moment, they can appreciate the experience, but it’s up to us to remove those barriers.”

In some ways, he says, it’s a human rights issue, as much about not locking someone away because of a diagnosis in the name of protecting that person, as it is about access to art. Building a sense of community is where the real treatment lies, he says, whether it’s their art museum program, or one that takes attendees to the movies, or any other community engagement.

“As a species, we do better when we’re connected with others and not segregated and isolated from the rest of the community, and that’s where we think the real treatment lies,” he says. “That’s really what it is, the opportunity for the person to be themselves and be among friends and out in society and be fully alive and present, not lost to the past but very much in the year 2015.”

Research is threading some science behind the anecdotes. Alzheimer’s often doesn’t affect the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center. For some people with dementia, creativity centers in the brain may even be enhanced.

“While the brains inevitably age, creative abilities don’t necessary decrease,” says Angela Lunde, a cognitive health and wellness specialist at the Mayo Clinic. “We think about dementia in terms of losses, and our medical model tends to look at what that person can no longer do, their disabilities, but yet, what art has done I think is really tap into what it is that is preserved in individuals.”

Memories of skills built through practice and repetition, like making art or music, lasts into the middle stages of dementia.

“That rhythm, that understanding of painting and the brush and the colors begins to be ingrained in the procedural memory bank where it’s going to be better stored and better accessible,” Lunde says. “Which is why my great,great-grandmother who lived to be over 100 years old and was in dementia, was still playing Beethoven on the piano until the week before she died.”

Those habits can also translate to more practical skills, like using a calendar, or art can be used to communicate memories, to recall what’s been forgotten in some way, or to express what verbal skills can no longer be wrapped around. Art makes new demands of neurons, forcing them to make new connections, to stay youthful.

Around 300 care communities and adult day programs in the Denver metro area run painting programs, and every Friday the Alzheimer’s Association hosts a music program that moves to Boulder on a quarterly basis.

Focus on what comes out of the art, on the innate and unguarded responses to it, Caulfield says, and you’re not dealing with the disease, you’re dealing with the person. Up to a week later, he says, he’s seen program participants continue to talk about the program, and ask when they’re going back to the museum.

The plan at BMoCA is to offer one tour per exhibition. The next is scheduled for July 30 to see Flatlander, an exploration of the world through flat screens.

ON THE BILL: Access Art: Tours for Individuals with Alzheimer´s and Dementia. 2:30 p.m. Thursday, July 30, BMoCA, 1750 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-2122.