Art for Life

Sallomi, Premonition of Jerry’s passing, oil on canvas, 48” x 48”, 2001

This summer I had the opportunity to work with seventeen senior citizens and eight university students on a project I called, Art and Life. I wanted to do this because I think we get it all wrong in our society. We have relegated the arts to entertainment and our elders to the sidelines. In this project, we met over the course of ten sessions, at the Milwaukee Art Museum and at the Jewish Home in Milwaukee, to look at art and to create. This experience has reinforced my feeling that art is an essential human process that is intimately linked with our understanding and expression of being alive.

James Hillman’s book The Force of Character is enlightening about the process of growing old, of living and of dying. He says that aging is an enigma that “is expressed in each one of us but its underlying nature remains a mystery.” That it is not about “letting go of life” but is instead a thoughtful and profound experience of one’s life-long development of character and that the “symptoms” of aging (physical, emotional and mental changes) are vital for the formation of wisdom.

My interest in working with the elderly and art has developed gradually. It was my step-father’s passing in August of 2001 that made me realize how connected dying is to how we have lived and to the transition that is at both ends of that living. From 1979 until 1992, I attended homebirths. When I arrived at my mother’s home to be with my stepfather in home hospice, I was deeply moved by the realization that sitting with him was very much like sitting with a woman in labor. There was a natural ebb and flow of his consciousness, a rally, a period of grace, and the final transition. He knew death was back to take him. He had us nearby.  He was not afraid. That he had worked most of his life as a Jungian Psychiatrist probably helped. He had an incredibly rich and insightful dream life. After I left, he told my mother that she had to send me a bouquet of sunflowers with a very urgent message. It had to be done now, however, 2am was not practical, so it happened the next morning. 

I think of my stepfather every time I watch seagulls. I remember watching the gulls float on the sea currents, rising over cliffs along the Oregon coast and then swooping down the coastline. I was smiling. He asked me if I thought they were experiencing joy. I thought about it for a lot longer than required to answer what I felt because I knew he was asking if my experience of their joy was my projection, or their experience. In the end, I said yes, I think the gulls are having a wonderful time up there and I wanted to fly with them. He didn’t say anything so I never knew for sure what he thought about that until after he died when I asked my mother.  She said, of course he would agree with my answer, he saw everything as conscious. This made me indescribably happy, and sad.

Before I learned of the severity of his condition, I had begun the painting titled, “Premonition of Jerry’s Passing” based on a dream I had had.  When I left him the last time, the last time I would ever see him, I woke up to a very generous bouquet of large sunflowers, all turning towards the bedroom window, with a note attached:  “It’s easy, you just go through the light.” 

So it was my work as a midwife, my Jungian stepfather, and my experiences as an artist that inspired me to want to work with elders in my community.  It has changed me.

What I learned. 

  1. Greet everyone. I am, by nature, a bit shy. To be a teacher requires overcoming this tendency to want to hole up in my shell and safely look out on the world from there. But over the years of teaching, I just adapted a different kind of protective coating that had more to do with talking to a group. Ellie, an art therapist who worked with us said that if we greet each participant as they come into the room they will feel more comfortable entering the new space of the art room and that these connections are critical. When we greet each new person as the individual that they are we create a very open space in which to explore our responses to art and in which we are willing to try new things. In working with elders, I learned to check my shell at the door. 
  2. Be honest. It is not important that the work be pretty. It is important that my response to it is real.  One of the most challenging projects was a self-portrait.  Here we have all the intimidations of making the drawing look accurate, typically beyond one’s means after a two-hour lesson, and then we have the bundle of self-image issues and perhaps also movement restrictions that come with age. In a conversation about one portrait with a participant who was not happy with it, I said I thought it was very expressive.  He asked me what I thought it expressed. I said sadness and told him why I felt that way, the white space, the elongated form, the vertical lines on the shirt that echoed, perhaps, the memory of having been in the camps during WWII… He said that yes, he was sad. He is ninety-one years old, he said, and “I have lived here for five years. I thought I would be dead by now.”
  3. Be real. We were working on a mixed-media project and I had just introduced oil pastels. One participant was using her finger to try to blend the pastels and I picked up a clear wax pastel and showed her how she could more effectively blend with this tool. She became furious and yelled at me that I had ruined her drawing and that I had no right to draw on her drawing. She is mostly deaf and in this upset state, her voice was booming and a bit difficult to decipher. I felt embarrassed. But she was right. I told her that she was absolutely right, I should have showed her how to use the technique on a different sheet of paper. I asked her forgiveness. She forgave me. I resisted the desire to avoid working directly with her for fear of being blasted again and we developed a warm and respectful friendship. We are all human.
Pacia Sallomi
October, 2010