Something happened when Brant Kingman handed his mother a colored pencil.
In the three years since Polly Penney, 87, was diagnosed with dementia, she had lost much of her short-term memory and some of her language. So she would ask Kingman the same question again, then again. Out of “absolute out-of-my-mind frustration,” Kingman, an artist, decided to try drawing together.
Penney grew quiet. Her shoulders loosened. “It silenced her so we could sit together,” Kingman said. “And then every now and then, lucid thoughts would appear to her.”
Almost unintentionally, he tapped into a national trend: using art as therapy for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. There are now art workshops for Alzheimer’s patients. Painting, poetry and pottery classes are tailored to dementia’s tics. Giving Voice Chorus, a pair of Twin Cities choirs for people with dementia, has created a tool kit so other cities might start their own.
Neurological disorders that attack memory and verbal communication can spare creativity, some research shows. In special cases, Alzheimer’s and frontotemporal dementia can even kick artistic ability into overdrive, said Dr. Bruce Miller, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco. If the disease attacks circuits on one side of the brain, he said, it might spark an interest or ability in the other side.
“It’s all about the geography,” said Miller, director of the university’s Memory and Aging Center. “It’s where the disease hits that is a determinant of what is lost — but sometimes what is gained.”
Partly because it offers another way to communicate, art therapy is “going to become, more and more, a regular part of how we look after people,” he said.
For Kingman and his mother, the art was accidental. Kingman, 63, has been a full-time artist for decades, painting and casting bronze sculptures in Minneapolis studios perhaps best known for the art parties he hosted in them. Penney worked in the world of art for many years — including as vice president of development at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design — but didn’t create it, Kingman said.
Before dementia struck, Kingman would often stop by Penney’s nearby house for a cup of coffee in the morning or a glass of wine at night. But as Penney’s thoughts circled, talking grew difficult. Kingman found himself cutting visits short.
“I’d have the best intentions and then just flee,” he said. “And then I’d sit in my car and be like, ugh. This is awful.”
Making art turned into a new kind of conversation. Kingman and his mother sat at her dining room table together, sketching their versions of works by Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee. Later, inspired by those lucid moments, the pair began creating angels.
“In interactions with people, which are so often word-based, it can go quickly to frustration,” Kingman said. “Art sort of gives you a bridge to get beyond that.”
Their pieces hang side-by-side on the walls of Jungle Red Salon Spa Gallery in Minneapolis, in an exhibition that ends Wednesday.
Language of images
When Rachel Moritz teaches a poetry class to older adults, many of them with memory loss, she often begins with music or a call-and-response. For one session, focused on hands, she passed around props: Silk scarves, a rolling pin, a garden spade. Then the group wrote a poem together.
Moritz is a poet and instructor with Artful Aging, a program run by the St. Paul nonprofit Compas. Compas works with artists to teach classes for older adults — watercolor, mosaics and weaving among them. The goal is to reach seniors in new ways, lessening depression and isolation, said Marian Santucci, the program’s manager.
In recent years, that work has been “gaining momentum” in care centers and senior living complexes, Santucci added.
Through training and teaching, Moritz has learned how to communicate with seniors with dementia, asking broad questions based on feelings. “What have your hands loved to do?” Then she’s patient. Participants mentioned gardening, baking, cradling a baby. One woman told a story of warming her hands in her mother’s thick brown hair.
“With memory loss, you get snippets, and I think what’s great about poetry is that really, poetry is the language of images,” Moritz said. “So if you’ve lost a lot of your language ability, you may still have a color, or an event, or a couple words.
“Using poetry with this population … can get people talking in ways that other kinds of conversations don’t.”
The artist remains
Jane Chang’s art pops up in every corner of her Bloomington home. Hanging in the dining room is one of her “paper quilts,” its marbled paper sewn and folded into a pattern inspired by a kimono.
Chang, 64, was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment in 2013 not long after moving to Minnesota. She and her husband, Hsien-Hsin Chang, took her doctor’s advice, connecting with the Alzheimer’s Association, attending a two-week program at the Mayo Clinic and exercising several times a week.
“We’re doing all the things we’re supposed to,” Jane said.
That includes art. “They encourage you to be creative,” she said. For her, that was easy: Chang has crafted since she was young, falling in love with handmade paper along the way.
Chang is quick to laugh about her memory lapses. Her verbal skills remain strong. Complex projects are trickier these days, though. Chang struggled with a bookmaking workshop, unable to keep up with the instructor.
But her artwork looks much like it always has, she said. She continues making paper-covered boxes and bookmarks with scraps of paper she has filed away in her basement studio, selling them at a recent church craft fair.
“All those skills I need to complete what I do are still there,” Chang said. “That creative part of me is still there.”
In the salon’s gallery, Kingman got close to his mother’s pieces, pointing out her “beautiful arabesques” and the “vivacious” wavy lines she used to draw her cat, Bump.
“In art, I think there are metaphors of the truth, of what’s actually going on,” he said. He touched the loops Penney drew. “These are like brain loops, her brain going around and around.”
Drawing helped Kingman deal with those loops, showing Penney the patience his girlfriend had long urged.
“It’s so embarrassing to be mad,” he said, his eyes filling with tears as he tugged his goatee. “The truth of it was so ugly, it needed to be shown.”
For months, Kingman posted their drawings on Facebook, alongside meditations titled “Adventures with Mom.” He described how they came to draw angels, then sculpt them. On walks near the railroad tracks behind his studio, the pair gathered sticks and burdock burrs. He welded a steel armature, covering it with the burrs and finishing it off with wings.
“What I feel about dementia patients is that when reason fails, then vocabulary fails,” Kingman said. “But feelings don’t fail.”
Just after Thanksgiving, Penney moved into a memory care facility in Colorado, near her daughter’s house. Kingman has kept in touch by phone, but that’s tough, he said. His spirits lifted recently when he got mail: a postcard Penney drew, its loops familiar.