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Meet me at the DIA: A journey into art, and memory

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

If you’ve ever watched a love one suffer through memory loss, you know they lose more than just their ability to remember even the most basic things.

They can lose their ability to relate—and become strangers to themselves, and the people who care for them.

But a new program at the Detroit Institute of Arts tries to ease that experience with what might seem like an unorthodox treatment: talking about art.

One Saturday morning: “Meet me at the DIA”

A group of people is sitting in front of a painting called “The Merrymakers.” It’s an 1870s work from the French artist Carolus-Duran.

In the painting are two well-dressed women sitting at a table, clearly enjoying themselves. One of the women is holding a chubby-cheeked baby, who’s grasping at something across the table—where there’s a brightly colored-bird, and another woman, holding something that seems to capture the baby’s attention.

“So this woman has something in her hand, that we’re gonna call a sculpture. And is anything happening between the sculpture, and the bird and the baby?” Simons asks, trying to draw a response from the group. “And the baby is watching it all happen. OK…so how does the baby look?”

That’s DIA docent Andrea Simons you hear there. Four of the people she’s talking to are elderly; three are in wheelchairs. All of them are struggling with memory loss.  And each is accompanied by a caretaker.

“Happy? Cheerful?” some of the participants suggest. They’re all participating in a relatively new program called “Meet me at the DIA.” It’s geared especially toward people like them.

The questions Simons asks are very specific—and very straightforward. First: What’s going on in this picture? Second, and a little bit more probing: What do you see that makes you say that? And finally: What more can we find?

Simons and some other DIA docents, including Diane Kowaleski, trained for “Meet me at the D-I-A” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

The New York program has run successfully for years. Kowaleski says the idea is to make clear there are no “right or wrong” answers—it’s about interpretation, not judgment.

“We’re hoping to generate memories from them, long term memories or short term memories, about things,” Kowaleski says. “And hoping that by their looking at the art, they’ll become more verbal, more aware of things…and they’ll interact with each other.”

Slowly, Simons’ questions start to spark responses from the initially hesitant group. And it’s not just the memory-impaired who are getting into it. In fact, it becomes obvious that Simons’ questions—which may seem childish in their simplicity—can get even those of us with able minds to look at art in a close new way, and see things we might otherwise miss.

And Simons says that’s exactly the point for the caretakers. They might not only find a new way to appreciate art—they can do it alongside the person they’re caring for. And that can alter the dynamics of what is too often an emotionally-taxing relationship.

“They’re not caretaking here,” Simons insists. “They’re participating as equals. And they probably haven’t had that interaction for some time, with that person.”

Those interactions start to flourish as Simons slowly leads the group to different pieces of art throughout the room, always prodding them with the same questions.

There’s only one patient in the group not in a wheelchair. Physically, she looks pretty great--she’s bright eyed and sprightly, even stylish. But as she circles the room with her daughter, it becomes obvious she’s seeing some things that aren’t there—including a camel in the folds of a sculpture, and a rabbit in the antlers of a dead elk in another painting.

Her daughter seems a little frustrated with her mother’s insistence on these interpretations. But Simons tries to draw her out.

 “I don’t quite see what you’re seeing,” Simons says, as the woman hesitates to approach the painting. “Why don’t you come and show us? Of course you can!”

“It’s like you’re somebody else”

This seems to be the norm among the patients here today: a mixture of hesitant confusion, with flashes of insight and clarity. It’s the case for Louis Niebrzydowski. He’s a big man with a friendly smile and kind eyes.

Like most of the others here, Niebrzydowski is a life-long art lover. In fact, he used to be an artist himself. He specialized in cut-out paper silhouettes—something he used to do at art fairs all over Michigan and the Midwest.

“At the art show, they saw the silhouettes that I did…but there again, I liked to do it, and do it to children, if I can,” said Niebrzydowski, weaving in and out of the past and present tense. “They’re kind of skeptical about me, what I do.”

“He’s done oil paintings, he’s done pastels in his time. And then primarily, like he said, the silhouettes,” says Niebrzydowski’s daughter Diane Featherson, gently guiding him back to the present day.”

“Charcoal,” adds Niebrzydowski.

“And charcoal,” says Featherston. “And this was all mostly self-taught. He  worked for 30 years at Ford Motor Company. But in his spare time—besides raising us kids—that would be his favorite thing to do. Huh, Dad?”

“Right,” says her father.

Donna Cunningham also has a long, deep attachment to art. Cunningham was quiet during most of the program. But when you ask her directly about art, words start pouring out—even if her thoughts do get a little jumbled.

Cunningham says she’s always loved working with color—and the expressive, in “fluidity”—her word--of paint.

“It’s like you have ideas, and you try to put them down on paper, and it doesn’t work, Cunningham says. “It’s like you’re somebody else.”

In fact, Cuningham used to be an art therapist. Her long-time in-home caretaker, Vanessa Vasileev, says Cunningham’s home is covered with artwork. And she still does a lot of creative projects—something Vasileev says makes a real difference.

Vasileev says Cunningham actually suffers from a closed head injury, but her symptoms are similar to dementia.

“I know she doesn’t know my name, but she knows every word to every song from like 1954,” Vasileev says. “And she remembers all the steps to all the dances. Don’t tell me how--she sees me 40 hours a week. But she knows the songs from the 50s.”

“Doing it out of a love for doing it”

That iffy, sporadic nature of the memory-impaired is something that’s well understood here—both by the caretakers who see it every day, and by the program’s leaders.

“I think memory impairment has touched many of our lives,” says docent Diane Kowaleski. “I think many of the docents involved in this program are doing it out of a love for doing it.”

Kowaleski says the DIA—with backing from the Michigan Alzheimer’s Association—had wanted to start a program like this for a long time. Now that they’ve secured sponsorship from HealthPlus of Michigan, they hope “Meet me at the DIA” will continue and grow every month, well into the future.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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