Through the Garden Door

A research project with Elizabeth Cooke supported by Grants for the Arts and Suffolk County Council

What is the role of art in ageing well?

Can art-making help us maintain and gain agency at a time when our capacity to make decisions is being gradually diminished?

These were the questions that initiated an investigation into art and ageing by Elizabeth Cooke and myself. During post graduate study I encountered excellent work in this field but there were still so many questions to raise.

This pilot project involved two visual artists working with residents of St Peter’s Residential Home in Bury St Edmunds to transform an unloved outdoor space into a personalised and sensory art garden.

The project took place between March and June 2015. The residents, most of whom have mid to late stage dementia took part in six arts workshops that took an open ended, personalised approach and adapted techniques and sources of inspiration to individual needs and interests.

The ideas that we took forward into future practice were:

  • We identified specific art approaches, techniques and materials which encourage creative decision-making, in this case we found an experimental approach to mosaic making to be very successful.
  • We  understand how the artistic starting point and content can focus more on an exploration of the everyday life, environment and objects that surround the participants.
  • We have a better understanding of the physical limitations of the participants and the idea that these restraints could be a starting point for artistic content, activities and response.
  • We realise that the project legacy should be independent of the current staffing structure. The project achieved the planned practice- based research outcomes but did not leave a sustainable project legacy.

Despite the fact that the majority of the outcomes were achieved we still questioned whether the project mattered. This was a project that set out to privilege the aesthetic over the social but perhaps managed to fall somewhere between the two. As a short-term intervention it did not seem to offer enough of value to the participants: the residents enjoyed the activity and social interaction at the time but this experience was, in most cases, immediately forgotten. Although this is an inevitability of working with people with these symptoms I wonder whether an ongoing workshop programme with professional artists is economically viable or practical and what type of funding body would support a long –term intervention that privileged aesthetic outcomes.  Robust funding would more likely be secured as part of a social/health care programme with well-being outcomes.

Alternatively, a short-term art intervention in this type of setting could result in an object or resource that responds to the project findings and improves the day to day experiences of the participants. This product might inspire further art activities adding to the sustainability of the work. Perhaps we should be understanding the outcome as critical design.

As artists, we know that we have the ability to make art in spaces and interstices that occur and to discover the gaps where critical engagement can start . Building on our learning from St Peters House we will approach a new project at Age UK with more fluidity between aesthetic and social outcomes understanding that a project can be critiqued in many ways. We have learnt that the development of content, processes and product is a step by step process and that authorship might be transferred backwards and forwards between the artists and participants.  The most powerful art is often generated from unexpected sources and even though we often need to deliver outcomes that meet funding criteria, as artists we are happy to work with the unknown with the hope that important art and knowledge emerge.

Perhaps, drawing on the philosophy of Entelechy Arts, we would be creating a space in which people could take their own creative journey accompanied by artists who are also learning and developing their practice (Gardner, 2014).

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