Artists continue their creative aging in care facility

Two artists find friendship and purpose at health care facility in Kelowna.

  • Sep. 5, 2013 9:00 a.m.

Karen Close, contributor

Sometimes life demands you pay attention.

Artist Daphne Odjig will celebrate her 94th birthday on Sept. 11, 2013. Daphne says she was born with a paintbrush in her hand. On Sept. 12, 5 p.m. at the Bohemian Cafe, the Okanagan Institute will be celebrating the life and work of this Canadian creative icon and presenting the portrait of Daphne, done at Cottonwoods this summer, by artist Karen R. Hersey.

I am a strong believer in synchronicity. Observations during three decades of teaching high school English and visual arts seeded my belief in the healing power of creative expression. In retirement, I have eagerly watched the Creative Aging movement and become an active advocate for exploring the links between healthy aging and creative expression.

Vividly Daphne recalls her early teenage years when she had to leave school after being stricken by rheumatic fever.

Daphne began developing her vision and painting skills while recovering and nursing her sick mother. Joyce Odjig had also had rheumatic fever in her teenage years. She died at age 38 with Daphne at her side.

Painting became a life skill for Daphne. It has served her well and may indeed have kept her the determined woman she is today. Although Daphne’s mind remains sharp, the only available bed for her at Cottonwoods Care Centre in Kelowna is in the hall primarily occupied by others with dementia. Daphne is a highly respected Elder within her community and has spent her life pioneering greater understanding for creative expression.  I see the magic of creative spirit claiming a role and setting up the next sequence of events.

One day when I arrived to visit, Daphne was not in her bed. Startled I looked about and there she was by the window in the far corner. Shortly after settling into these new accommodations, she had wheeled across the room seeking a glimpse of the outdoors. She discovered Karen R. Hersey, her roommate, also shared a love for nature, and even more importantly, for painting. Over the summer the two have spent  many delightful hours remembering and conversing.

Karen had been a successful landscape  and portrait painter. She still had her paintbox near her bed, but had not used it. One day, while I was visiting with both of them, I suggested that Karen could paint a portrait of Daphne for her birthday. The idea found interest and so I provided paints and a canvas.

If you’ve seen the movie Quartet, you know how creative spirit remains a friend when other faculties weaken. Three days later, I returned to see the portrait completed and hear about the lively conversations that accompanied its creation. The portrait is excellent. Daphne loves it and Karen says she feels like herself again.

However, when I asked if Karen had painted recently, she couldn’t remember. We decided I should call her daughter to tell her about the portrait.

She couldn’t believe it.

“My mother has not painted for over 10 years. She stopped when she realized her memory was leaving her in her early 60s.” I proceeded to explain how much fun we were all having, laughing and sharing thoughts about art. Since putting her mother in Cottonwoods, Karen’s daughter has been recovering from a serious car accident and is unable to visit.  On the phone, she had felt her mother’s spirits declining and felt very much at a loss as to how to help, both because of finances and her own physical decline.

Two year’s ago I founded the Okanagan Institute’s online journal on arts and aging. Sage-ing With Creative Spirit Grace and Gratitude can be visited at The journal celebrates Creative Aging. Last spring when I learned Daphne had recently moved into Cottonwoods Care Centre, I began to visit. Although I met Daphne 10 years ago, there is now time to talk and she has wisdom to share.

“Odjig holds an important place among the great artists of Canada,” said National Gallery of Canada director, Marc Mayer. “She is respected nationally and internationally as a matriarchal figure who has captured her people’s voice, history and legends in a unique artistic style.”

Daphne’s numerous awards include appointment to The Order of Canada in 1987 and election to the Royal Canadian Academy of Art in 1989. In 2007 she was given the Governor’s General Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts, followed by investiture into the Order of British Columbia. She has received Honorary Doctorates of Letters from Laurentian University in Sudbury, the University of Toronto, Okanagan University College in Kelowna and Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops.

That phone call to Karen’s daughter, who lives  in Vernon, was made Wednesday, Aug. 21. I do believe in synchronicity. As I started my car to leave Cottonwoods that day, I was glowing from the warmth of my visit with Daphne and Karen. Suddenly the radio blared news of the 95 year old dementia patient in care in Vernon who had murdered his roommate. The next day, Aug. 22, CBC news postedthe following article

Artists “better protected against dementia” study finds.  “Neurologists at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto found that artists suffering from vascular dementia may still be able to draw  spontaneously and from memory, despite being unable to complete simple, everyday tasks… Dr. Fornazzari said he believes educators should take the findings seriously and encourage schools to teach the arts—whether sculpture, painting or music—rather than cutting back on them… “Art opens the mind,” he said. “It should be taught to everyone. It’s better than many medications and is as important as mathematics or history.”

Yes, art opens the mind. I know this. My observations both as a teacher and as a volunteer at The Village On Mill Creek, where a weekly Playing With Paints program was initiated two years ago, are confirmation.

When will our cultural mindset support the understanding that humans interacting through art is essential? Art is not about talent, age, physical state or the product produced. Art is about caring and sharing with each other in meaningful ways that open the mind to oneself and others.

A sense of isolation is one of the greatest barriers to healthy aging. Creative spirit knows no barriers. It is the healing gift available to all.

I hope that this story of Daphne and Karen at Cottonwoods will awaken our culture and the health care community to how art opens the mind and aids wellbeing. Art is not just a commodity. Finding relaxation and enjoyment through creative expression, even the art of conversation, brings engagement and improved wellness for all.

Media guru Marshall McLuhan wrote: “I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.”

For the Okanagan and its large senior population, I hope Creative Aging is beginning to happen.

Karen Close is on the advisory board of the the Okanagan Institute, the Arts Health Network and the Society for the Arts in Dementia Care.


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