Work from a new project around the theme of dementia will be showcased in St Helens on Wednesday, December 7th.
R-Age: A Definition of Love, is a project commissioned by Heart of Glass, has been taking place throughout 2016 and work from artists and participants will be displayed at The Beecham’s Building on Water Street.
The exhibition will be open throughout Wednesday with an introduction to the project, artist talk, short film and Q&A from 5.30pm.
The project has been delivered by Alison Kershaw, a contemporary visual artist and Adele Fowles, a performer and artist Sandra Bouguerch.
The participants from around St Helens have attended sessions at The Beecham’s Building with one member of the group hailing the workshops “the highlight of my week.”
We chatted to Alison about the project ahead of the exhibition:
Q: How did you get involved with this project?
I worked with Heart of Glass on the “Your Name Here” project – and whilst I was doing some videos with older residents, Kat, one of the producers here asked me to think about how we could work with dementia groups.
My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimers Disease in 2012, and so she knew I already had some direct experience.
I proposed the project and it was accepted. From then on we were reading books and searching for work about dementia – of which there is quite a lot.
Q: What led you to focus on literature and film for this project?
It started when a friend recommended me to read Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healy. Its a light read, not the greatest novel I’ve ever read but it helped me. My mother has Alzheimers and this book really tries to describe what it might be like to experience dementia.
I found it really helped me to think about my Mum’s situation differently – and try to imagine what it might be like for her. It made me more empathic and to see how small objects and material things like clothes or handkerchiefs could become very very important for reasons I hadn’t understood, but that like photographs, they helped her to piece her history together.
So the starting point was to think about ways that families of people living with dementia would be able to meet together, do something enjoyable, whilst also finding a “way in” to talking about issues that they might like to discuss around how dementia affects their lives and also to think what it might be like for the person with a dementia.
Using literature was a way of discussing the subject without it needing to become personal – but of course it soon did. I wanted to create a project that could potentially continue into the lives of the participants and I thought about a Book Club – where people get together in small groups to share their ideas about a novel, poem or film.
Once Adele and I started researching, there was so much rich material to get our teeth into.
Q: What do you think this project has achieved?
A great deal was achieved. Firstly, in the reading group the opportunity to be together, immersed in stories was mentally stimulating, challenged our perceptions and to enabled us to discuss some very difficult areas that we all had in common.
This was most valuable, because we all learnt from and supported each other. Everyone shared openly and freely. Everyone in the group was very supportive of each other – and I think that comes out in the soundtrack of the film. This involved 16 hours of sound recordings from the discussions being condensed to 16 minutes – so you get a flavour of that sharing. We also managed to laugh a lot and cry a little at times.
Moved by the literature and films which can be very cathartic. The research where Adele and I read all the novels, means that we now have a great reading list of books, poetry and films and have extracts from the books to share with others. We are finding new ones to add all the time.
Q: What has been the participant feedback?
From what the main participants said to us, it was something they really enjoyed and gained from – more so than they had anticipated, when we told them what we would be doing. We began each session with a guided relaxation – just to take ourselves out of our rushed selves and try to leave the day behind.
This continued in the luxurious state of being read to by Adele which people found relaxing. Jane and Denise, who attended all the sessions seemed to lap up the literature and they began writing down their own experiences in the form of poems in notebooks we had provided. They always came in with stories about their week and just appreciated the time taken by myself and Adele to prepare the sessions.
They said they would go away and watch the films and pick up copies of some of the books. They appreciated the intellectual stimulation the project gave them, because in everyday life it was hard to have any in depth conversations. Jane told us that coming to Heart of Glass for R-Age was “the highlight of my week”, which was a massive endorsement. Denise said that the course had reignited her interest in writing, and that she would continue to use writing as a way to “get things out of my head and onto paper” For her, a very important point was that it would be difficult to do the project or continue with the reading group without the other group run by Sandra – where the partners living with dementia were safe and also stimulated and engaged with the art laboratory.
Q: What do you believe are the long term benefit of this project?
I hope that the long term benefits will be to recognise how important it is to support creative spaces and projects where people can share their experiences and try out new things or discover old skills anew in a supportive environment.
Doing this kind of work with art is hugely beneficial to those who take part because it allows them to imagine, experiment and play. There is no right or wrong outcome – no wrong answers, just your own journey of discovery. It can boost self esteem of those involved and rekindle interests that perhaps we’ve not had time for in the busy schedules we are all caught up in.
I don’t think we can underestimate how important it is to value the arts. Artists are often pioneers discovering how the world looks, feels and behaves and reflecting it back to us. This is what we discover in the work of writers, film makers, painters and ourselves as we share the experience of seeing art or making art. If we care about anything it should be quality of life and I think this kind of project enhances that deeply and richly and it also challenges us.