A&E Pick of the Week
On a chilly February afternoon, sunlight streams through the windows of the Frye Art Museum, calling attention to the playful shapes and colors on display. On one wall hangs a painting of bright blue and orange made, in part, by Margot Hughes-McDonald.
Here, in the “Art on the Mind” exhibit, 77-year-old Hughes-McDonald is not a dementia patient. She is an artist.
“Art on the Mind: Ten Years of Creative Aging” marks a decade of Creative Aging, a series of free creative engagement programs at the Frye that allow individuals living with dementia to foster friendships and community through art — the first of its kind in Washington state, according to the Frye. Since November 2020, the exhibit has showcased works of art created by individuals living with dementia and their care partners.
The creators of the exhibit had a goal of sharing people’s stories and destigmatizing what it means to have dementia, said Mary Jane Knecht, manager of the Creative Aging programs. As the exhibit nears its closing day, April 3, Knecht thinks they were successful.
“I think it is really impacting people’s perspectives of how they see people living with dementia,” she said. “We’ve gotten significantly more requests from people about volunteering for the program. It’s really had a ripple effect.”
Research for Creative Aging began 12 years ago and was inspired by a similar program at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, according to Knecht. Creative Aging started with here:now, a free art-making and discussion class that “celebrates present-moment awareness,” according to the Frye website.
Since then, the Frye has added Bridges, an off-site program where educators travel to homes or care facilities to accommodate those whose dementia is advanced or who may have mobility issues. The museum also offers Meet Me at the Movies, which includes a film showing followed by an audience discussion.
Hughes-McDonald participates in Creative Aging with her daughter, Kirsten Kinnan. Kinnan said her mother has always been very creative, and these classes allow Hughes-McDonald to express herself freely.
“She’s always been an artist, she’s always been attracted to that,” Kinnan said. “What has been delightful with this program is it is tapping into muscle memory. It’s like riding a bike. It’s something that she sees it — and I do believe that true artists are intuitive — and so it’s just sort of coming out.”
Randy Rowland participated in multiple Creative Aging classes with his wife, Kay Grant Powers, before her death in 2019. A watercolor painting Powers created at a here:now class in 2016 hangs in the “Art on the Mind” exhibit.
“My wife declined for a long time, and I hadn’t seen her operate at that level for a while. And then all of a sudden, there she was, kind of waxing poetic and talking about the painting that we’re looking at,” he said.
For Rowland and Powers, the classes were a great way to have a date and socialize. Rowland specifically praised the format of here:now and its emphasis on being in the moment, which he said benefitted both of them.
“You don’t have to have an art degree, you don’t have any memory. It’s what do you see, and how does it make you feel. It’s all present tense,” he said. “That was kind of what my wife and I tried to do, as a way of managing her decline, was keep life in the present tense. … And that program helped keep us up where we’re supposed to be, instead of falling off the cliff.”
Throughout a decade of Creative Aging, the Frye has had an ongoing partnership with UW Medicine’s Memory and Brain Wellness Center. This month, that partnership will expand with the opening of the Memory Hub, a dementia-oriented senior center on the Frye’s campus.
A mission of the Frye and the Memory Hub is to combat misconceptions about dementia. Memory Center director Marigrace Becker gave examples of two harmful but common misconceptions, the first being that people with dementia are “gone.” While dementia may change someone, Becker said, they are still alive, present and worth getting to know.
Another misconception Creative Aging has debunked is that if someone with dementia is not going to remember a moment, there is no point in creating it. But a moment of comfort or companionship, even if forgotten, can impact mental well-being, Becker said.
“Maybe it’s true that they won’t remember, but the emotional impact that happened in that exchange, during that in-the-moment time, is lasting,” Becker said. “Moments are what make up our lives, and people with dementia can live for 20 years. So, that’s a lot of moments that may as well be high quality.”