I am thinking with my hands - working with clay in Dementia Care
I’m Brigitte Jurack and I would like to concentrate on this Seminar on participation of elderly citizens within a contemporary art context. We’re particularly focussing on elderly citizens which are affected by dementia and Alzheimer. This project is called ‘Where the Arts Belong.’ The project is in collaboration with the leading publically-funded contemporary arts centre in Liverpool, The Bluecoat, and one of the leading innovative dementia care providers, Belong. The project received public funding from The Baring Foundation, Arts Council England and The Rayne Foundation. I’d like to hand over to Natalie Ravenscroft who is the Experience Co-ordinator at Belong Crewe.
Hi, my name’s Natalie Ravenscroft. I’m the Experience Co-ordinator at Belong Crewe. My responsibility is to make sure we’re bringing meaningful occupational activities to our household customers and also the community. Working with the ‘Where the Arts Belong’ project has been fantastic, particularly the sculpture sessions with Brigitte. The main reason for this is customers have been able to experience textures maybe they’re not used to, and then also get really creative: even though we had props on the table, some of the work produced was really unique and also involved their fingerprints, which is a nice little touch. It’s been a great opportunity for everyone to be able to access sculpture sessions, especially people living with dementia, and also their families have been getting involved heavily. It’s also helped our staff be more open minded to exactly what art is, as most of them felt that art was painting or drawing, not realising the broader spectrum of art and what is available. This is something I’d definitely like to continue. We’ve now incorporated sculpture sessions into our art programme, using dry clay, and again using objects from the outside to do prints and that was all thanks to the Bluecoat project and Brigitte giving us advice on what products we could use.
Brigitte Jurack - voiceover
Before I go into more detail about these particular sets of workshops in the dementia care setting, I show you a bit of my studio. I’m working at the moment on a series of sculptures which are entitled ‘Scavengers’ and I am currently working on twelve foxes which I will be exhibiting in 2020 in Texas.
After the workshops, I usually take the sculptures I have made with the elderly people to my studio for slow drying. Here you can see samples of work done with volunteers who are supposed to continue this project after I have left. So you can see very simple and straightforward different techniques, working around a cardboard core to build up a shape.
Research really underpins my work and I came across these fantastic Palissy ware recently in the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna. Palissy was a 16th century potter from France who is most notably known for these rustic still-life platters and he was severely influenced by his interest in natural science, hydraulics and the origins of fossils.
Apart from historical research, the work is very much influenced by bringing the textures and smells and shapes and colours of fruit and vegetables into the care home setting. Before I go into the sessions, I go to the market and the fruit and vegetable shops near my studio to bring some of this fresh produce to the workshops. Inspired by Palissy, fish and seafood have been incredibly important to this process. It also brings up memories from seaside holidays and the pungent smell of the fresh produce re-connects the elderly citizens with their senses.
Municipal Museums have very large stores and the workshops are increasingly also inspired by the collections in the cities in which these workshops take place.
We’re here at The Atkinson Storeroom for Ceramic Art and research is part of the project. Here I have a Palissy-style ceramic especially for asparagus and presumably it used asparagus as the starting point for the shape. I’m particularly interested in the animals as well because when we come here with the elderly citizens I will be concentrating on making ceramic animals. Here is a cat which is slightly flocked or cut-out, and a rabbit ? I quite like this one.
Brigitte Jurack - voiceover
What I’ve noticed during the workshops is how important it is to surround ourselves with products from nature and particularly associations with food. Our imagination is spurned on and these rich colours and pungent smells stimulate the senses of the elderly participants. The fantastic thing about doing these workshops is that they are also social opportunities ? we sit around a big table, we are together, we are touching, we are discovering our world through words and objects. Touch is one of the most fundamental human senses, beyond smell and sight, and it is probably the one that connects us right back to very early discoveries; touching mud or earth brings us in contact with the world. During the workshops, it is fascinating to me as an artist, to see that participants that may not actually be able to articulate, in words, the world around them, actually squeeze the world into existence using clay.
The tools I’m using are really basic and many of the participants have mobility issues with their hands, so it’s a tremendous strength that is required to actually squash the clay and use the hands.
I have also noticed that some of the participants who are at stages of very severe restrictions on mobility can still take part in these workshops by using very simple but very effective imprinting techniques: printing malleable clay onto the cabbage leaves.
The glazing and post-production I exclusively do away from Belong in the ceramic workshop at Manchester School of Art where I am Head of Sculpture. Here you see plates which are done by couples, or daughter and father, husband and wife and these can be seen as frozen moments of working together.
I’m applying Magnesium Oxide, pretty roughly, onto the Bisque-fired plates and once the Magnesium Oxide has gone in, I’ll put a shiny earthenware glaze over the top and that will bring out the structures of the grasses best. I’m not using this process with the participants because Magnesium Oxide is harmful and some of the residents at Belong Village are not able to hold a tool or a brush so I decided early on in the process that the glazing, that is the post-production, is just done by me.
For people working in the field, professional ceramicists and potters, these techniques are very well known. What is unique is that these are artefacts produced by couples whereby one of the family members has gone on the dementia journey while the other one is the care giver or is visiting their relative in the care setting. As such, these imprints of grasses are mementoes to being together and enjoying an activity where there a kind of symbiosis between the different people involved.
Here, you can see me glaze one of the first group Palissy plates ? there were about twelve participants in this workshop and you can see a very simple press mould bowl and each of the participants starting making vegetation, insects or small scale animals to be then inserted into the plate. Slow drying then followed and here you can see me going a little bit wild with the glazes to create that saturated sensually-rich experience which I so greatly admire in the original Palissy ware. It is the oozing of the natural world coming in and through the ceramic itself.
Brigitte Jurack - voiceover
These are very simple glazes; they are basically high-gloss with an underglaze mixed in and a few drawing marks done with an Oxide to just create that extra depth.
The colours here in this first group wares are very saturated and Autumnal in a way. The work was done at the end of the Summer and you can see the first fruit and the last flowers oozing from the surface ? it’s a very vibrant rich experience.
What I didn’t really expect and what surprised me to a very large degree is that during the workshops, the concentration of those taking part is completely compatible with the concentration I experience myself in the studio. We are totally absorbed in the material itself and in the act of making, and that sheer sense of being in the here and now, in touch with the world, is the most surprising and the most important aspect in the dementia care setting with participants which are affected by Alzheimers. Benedetto Croce, a very important art historian, talked about this idea of ‘being in the temple’ where time, space and the self are flowing into each other, where everything else falls away, a kind of union with the idea which takes hold of oneself.
Dementia research has demonstrated that the musical part of the brain remains active much longer than other brain connectors. For me, as a sculptor, tactility and space, touch and things in the round are vital for well-being and balance: the stones on which stand, the timber we use in our furniture, the soft fabric of velvet, the touch of the rose petal are important to confirm my presence in time and space. We understand as children the world through touch, building sandcastles, playing in the mud and jumping into puddles. No words are needed in our embodied understanding of the world around us. And these workings with clay are a non-verbal embodiment of understanding the world around us. This fundamental human trait underpins my work with elderly citizens on the dementia and Alzheimer journey.
What fascinates me, as an artist, is that we have lost a lot of the connectors between words and meaning; a sense of slippage, but surprisingly we have this capacity to play with mud, to squeeze and mould into shape. We externalise something which is deep within us, which perhaps we didn’t even know we had within. In that sense, it is perhaps a bit like singing, or humming ? squeezing the cold clay, pushing into shape is being in the here and now. It is deeply human to make stuff and to conquer the world around us through making. This ability seems not to leave us in old age. And it is fascinating to see how the elderly people I have been working with are uninhibited ? they just simply go for it. Our sensory facilities often lie dormant, unchallenged and forgotten. Stimulating our visual and tactile senses is crucial in this; the wet clay, the fish, the seashells, fruit, leaves and vegetables are food for our eyes and our soul.
Once the ceramics are glazed, I return them to Belong and they find their rightful place in the actual rooms of those participating. Here you see Peter’s room and all the artifacts he has been making during the workshops. So, art really belongs to life and if life moves on, then the art moves with you.