Notes from the Field: "Art-Talk"

I walk into William's room and see that he has the watercolors I gave him last week, leaning against his fridge, packaging intact. I ask him several times if he wants to try something today with me. He says no, but I'm able to keep the conversation going by talking about famous painters and museums. He tells me he enjoys realistic painting but considers himself an abstract painter and likes De Kooning, Natkin, and Hopper. He shows me images of his own paintings on his phone.

We talk about what it's like to be an artist and how to keep working at it while having another career. "Is it worth it?" Like so many other people I've worked with in the hospital, William says he's now more committed to painting, then before. "You just don't know how much time you have, right?" He asks me about my process and I tell him that the first step is to establish a space to devote to art-making ONLY because once you're there, you have no excuse NOT to make art."  William nods his head emphatically and says, "You are so right!"  As we speak, I casually open the watercolor set that I had left with him and place it on the tray in front of him. "OK, OK, you got me!" 

When faced with a reluctant patient, simply having a discussion about art can engage a patient and eventually lead them to having a creative experience.  As an artist-in-residence, I've coined this process "art-talk"…the gateway to art-making.

Memory Loss Visualized...

A beautiful, very short film by Alan Berliner about the memory decline in Alzheimer's Disease called "56 Ways of Saying I Don't Remember" that's featured on the NY Times website:

Notes from the Field: Blind Contour Drawings

Amanda has such a sensitive view of the world around her. This becomes clear after speaking with her for just a few minutes. I show her a paper ornament, and she says she doesn't think she could learn how to make it. I try again, admiring the beautiful arrangement of fresh sunflowers on her bedside table. She points out that one appears to be smiling. I say, “You have an artistic flair for sure!” She doesn't believe me.

I make a quick sketch of the sunflowers while she watches. I tell her about blind contour drawings – a method of drawing the contour of a subject without looking at the paper – and make one myself. Amanda looks intrigued by this and asks me what could be gained from not looking at what you're drawing. Only one way to find out!

I set her up and volunteer to hold a piece of paper over what she is drawing so she can't look at it.  Then, I instruct her to glue her eyeballs to the flower, find a spot and follow the edge with her eye.  With every move her eye makes, move the marker too.  "Think of it as an extension of your eye – like you are tracing it." She cries out, "I’m so lost!"  I tell her is doesn't matter…just keep going. She says, "OK, so ANYTHING goes!" When she's done, we take a look at her drawing and she's rather impressed. She even put in the smiley face in the center of one of the flowers and can't believe the mouth and eyes are all in the right place. SEE?!!!

Famous Artwork in Pieces (ex. Edward Hopper)

This project is great for working with patients in infusion. It's collaborative, stirs up conversation about art, and always has a unique outcome.

Original image
Canvas paper
Surface you glue onto

1. Take the original image and grid the entire image.
2. Sketch a simplified version of the original on canvas paper.
3. Mix colors as needed.
4. There are many variations of this project. For this particular image, calligraphic black lines are added to unify the painting. (Having two reproductions going at the same time gives the patients who are painting, the opportunity to engaged in two different pieces of art.)
5. Cut the 2 reproductions and interchange squares so each adjacent tile is slightly or greatly different.

You can be as creative as you want with this project. Sometimes painting or drawing a particular figure can be intimidating for patients. One way to alleviate this concern is to turn the square upside down so the image is unrecognizable. Patients respond well to this because it is abstract. Once you show them the painting, they are proud of what they created.

Notes from the Field: Pebbles of Inspiration

My patient, Marsha, is making gifts. She began weeks ago, creating gifts for her family. She notices the glass pebbles in my cart. Today she says she will be making gifts for the staff. I show her how we can make one word messages on each pebble. She decides she wants the words to be inspirational and characteristic of key traits in hospital staff: passion, caring, peace, etc.

Marsha's goal is to make enough to distribute them to each staff member, both day and night shift. She explains how she wants the staff to choose the pebble from a bag to keep on their desk or refrigerator as a reminder that "when times are tough, one can lose their way." Marsha tells me she's been in the hospital for many weeks, and though she knows it will be tiring, today she declares she will walk throughout the floor to have the entire staff choose pebbles.
The nurse manager picks the word PEACE; a doctor who is treating Marsha picks the word CARING. This was a touching moment because the doctor let his guard down and hugged Marsha as a result of her making something for him.

Later the same day, I returned to the unit. The staff were truly touched by the energy Marsha has for participating in this art piece and in personally delivering her art to them. Pebbles for thought.