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Art Program For Those With Dementia Opens Minds & Hearts

Rachel Otwell
Marianne Stremsterfer (left) & Gail Record show the project they're working on together

The Opening Minds Through Artprogram was started in Ohio in 2007 as a way to give people with Alzheimer’s and dementia a chance to be artists. The Springfield Art Association has now taught classes over a fall and spring session. A receptionon Friday from 5:30 - 7 at the SAA Collective Gallery at the Hoogland Center for the Arts will display the latest work. 

The students are paired with volunteers they stick with through a weekly program that goes for about 3 months. One student/volunteer pair got teary as they talked about their experiences together. Tricia Balli says she hopes to stay friends with her volunteer helper Lindy Seltzer.

Credit Rachel Otwell
Tricia Balli shows off her latest artwork

Balli had a career as an administrator for AT&T. She’s 74 and some years back, she suffered from a stroke. She’s enjoyed the art classes. “It's important for people to have art in their life because it makes them happy. I know art sure makes me happy," said Balli.

For the last class, Balli did three abstract pieces. They were incredibly colorful and involve layered paints dripping into interesting patterns. One with hues of green and pink she named “Spring-fields.”

Greg Kyrouac is with theSIU School of Medicine. He’s helping oversee the program, made possible by a federal grant adminstered through the Illinois Department on Aging. The goal is to provide community outreach to those struggling with dementia. Part of the mission is to allow students to make decisions, like picking the colors of paint they use and naming their works.

“We all want to make our own decisions. That's what a part of our humanity is. But for the art program, we don't overwhelm them with choices," said Kyrouac. Focusing on abstract art helps too. “There’s no right or wrong way to do the art that they’re doing.”

Credit Rachel Otwell
examples of OMA artwork

Kyrouac says the hope is for the program to continue on, twice per year in Springfield. Erin Svendsen is with the Springfield Art Association which has been hosting the classes. She says she’s witnessed the building of self-confidence. “The person with dementia doing the art project can tell, 'Hey, I'm doing this. It's actually turning out like the example.' That feeling of success and accomplishment stays with them and helps them be happy and excited and thrilled with their project," said Svendsen.

The bonds being made are clear too, and even if some names are forgotten, the warm feelings toward each other are present each class period, Svendsen said. Part of the objective of this program is that it all culminates in an art reception. And while there will be a variety of interesting abstract work on display, there’s sure to be a lot of love in that gallery as well.

Rachel Otwell of the Illinois Times is a former NPR Illinois reporter.
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