In the moment: Art and dementia

By Sarah Selig

In the moment: Art and dementia
Art and mindfulness are the perfect combination in making us live in the moment and suspend judgement. This month, a panel event at the Art Gallery of NSW is shining a light on the transformative experiences of engaging in art.

At the end of May, The Art Gallery of New South Wales is hosting a panel discussion on ‘Art and mindfulness’ as part of the 2016 Vivid Sydney festival. The event focuses on the power of art to generate meaningful and transformative experiences for individuals, particularly those living with dementia or mental illness.

For the past decade, the health benefits of engaging in art have been well documented. In the busy lives we lead today, being present and ‘in-the moment’ is often an unattainable rarity. However, slowing down and reflecting is powerfully underrated. Allowing our minds to engage in the creative processes we often neglect can ignite imagination and intuition. When experiencing artwork, it goes beyond the passive. It is a participatory and active process in engaging with what’s in front of you and feeling comfortable about expressing your ideas.

The Art Gallery of NSW’s Access Coordinator, Danielle Gullotta says experiencing art in the moment is all about a facilitated experience that leads to personal meaning making.

MiNDFOOD spoke to Danielle about her passion for providing everyone with the opportunity to experience art, regardless of age or ability. In particular, she has worked with sufferers of dementia and has witnessed the power art can have in creating positive change in their lives. Danielle’s work validates the known capability of people living with dementia to imagine.

Danielle describes, ‘It’s a lovely thing when you see a family member or paid carer engaged with that person and discussing [art] work. It is giving them an opportunity to discuss something other than the mundane. You are giving a respite to the individual and their carer or support family. You are creating a situation that anyone can experience.” This simple yet powerful concept is the key to a mindful art program. “Its about suspending judgement, suspending the pressures of the world and at that point, just looking at the colours and textures.”

When mental illness is associated with art, a common assumption might be that artworks need to contain a distressing or dark themes that reflect the inner psyche. We asked Danielle her thoughts on whether this is an ill-informed conclusion…

“Definitely. You want to show the possibility. If in a program someone brings up something from a darker side, i.e. when people talk about things that they have experienced in their lives, that’s an opportunity for someone to talk about it or not talk about it. It’s very open and no program is the same.” This message is effective in destabilising the stigma around talking about mental illness.

Danielle says “There’s nothing wrong with expressing your opinion. It seems that through our culture we are often meant to think that we don’t know what something means. So in a mindful program, what we ask is for people to suspend judgement, be in the moment, reflecting what they see, share ideas and come to your own personal meaning.” It’s reassuring to know that art doesn’t judge.

In the future Danielle has hopes for a broadcast artwork campaign that inspires Australians to engage in creativity. “We have public campaigns about no smoking and staying active but I can see in the future a public health campaign around engaging in art and the ideas of creativity and imagination.” Quite literally, watch this space.

At the event, Danielle and Dr Katherine Boydell will provide participants the opportunity to hear around initiatives driven by UNSW’s art and mental health decision, Black Dog Institute and Beyond Empathy.



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