The art of sparking memories
● By J. Chambless
Justine Stehle points out Jamie Wyeth’s ‘The Raven’ at the Brandywine River Museum of Art.
On a quiet Tuesday morning, a group of about a dozen men and women gather in an upstairs gallery at the Brandywine River Museum of Art and take their seats. They are only a few feet away from Jamie Wyeth’s iconic “Portrait of Pig,” a painting that has gained generations of admirers since it was painted in 1970. But this group is paying particularly close attention as Justine Stehle, smiling broadly, welcomes them and asks, “So, what do you think of this pig?”
An elderly woman, Joan, can’t resist. “Ooooh, it’s such a big … shnookie!” she exclaims, bringing her hands together as if she’s hugging the huge animal.
The others laugh, Stehle nods and beams, and the day’s discussion is off and running.
Stehle is a program facilitator for ARTZ Philadelphia, an organization that brings people suffering from dementia, and their caregivers, to museums in the region to enjoy what art is supposed to do – spark conversations, bring back hazy memories, encourage interaction with others, and to make people smile.
The hour-long programs are offered once a month at the Brandywine and other art institutions in the region, and there’s never an agenda. People who may not ordinarily communicate well are asked to share how they feel about a piece of art, without pretense and without judgment.
Stehle gently prods the group, but allows everyone to take whatever path they want. There’s no critical element – the name of the artist isn’t even mentioned. The important thing is to get everyone to formulate how they feel and express it however they want.
“What’s making this pig look so happy, do you think?” Stehle asks. Several people point out the animal’s upturned smile, her perky ears and curly tail.
Someone in the audience notices the corn cobs at the pig’s feet. “It looks like there’s something to eat,” she says. Another woman says, “I’m from Iowa and I notice …” she fights to remember the word as her caregiver leans over and whispers it to her. “Corn,” the woman concludes, pointing to the painting.
The conversation continues, with Stehle making sure to include everyone. For over half an hour, the audience’s attention never wanders. Deliberately keeping the pace slow, and returning to reinforce elements already discussed, she enthusiastically builds on each comment, whether or not it’s been mentioned before.
“What do you think this pig’s life must be like?” Stehle asks.
“She likes having visitors like us every day,” someone answers, as the group laughs.
Joan, who proudly states that she grew up in South Africa and had pigs in her yard, says, “Some of them were fun, and some of them were,” she thinks for a moment. “Grrrr!” she adds.
Even small details are picked up on. “The hair almost looks like it’s been combed,” a man says. “She might be a mommy,” someone else points out.
Bill, sitting in the front row, says, “This is as close as I’ve ever been to a pig,” sparking a discussion of whether “Portrait of Pig” is life-size or not.
Eventually, Stehle wraps up the discussion and suggests moving to the painting next to it, Jamie Wyeth’s “The Raven,” showing a huge bird with an aggressive stance and a piercing gaze.
“What do you call that?” Stehle asks, pointing to the bird.
“That’s a handsome bird,” Bill says. “It would look majestic flying in the air.”
Dan, looking back at the previous painting, adds, “It would take him a long time to eat that pig.”
The group laughs wholeheartedly as the discussion turns to how big a raven really is.
Bertha, a woman in the front row, remarks, “He’s foreseeing.” Pressed for details, she adds, “Those eyes can look a long, long way.”
“That bird looks powerful,” Bill adds. “Like a bird you would respect.”
And so it goes for another half an hour, with the audience truly seeing every aspect of the painting – from the light source to the layering of the feathers, to whether the bird is taking off or landing. Attention never strays.
At the back of the group, Joan is among the most enthusiastic visitors, stating again and again how “wonderful” South Africa was when she was young.
Stehle, picking up on her comments, asks the group, “Has anyone else been to South Africa?”
Getting no response, she smiles as Joan stands up, exclaiming, “What? What are you waiting for? Let’s go!”
After the hour is up and goodbyes are said – along with some hugs -- Stehle said that the rapt attention of the group is typical. She doesn’t move too quickly for the participants, who enjoy discovering the tiniest details in a given artwork.
While the choice of art varies, Stehle said she usually has a chance to prepare some thoughts about each painting before she starts. She presents similar programs at the Main Line Art Center and Woodmere Art Museum, as well as at the Brandywine. She also takes reproductions of artworks into nursing homes for residents who cannot get out to the museums.
“We sit with laminated images and talk about the art,” Stehle said, adding that getting people in front of the originals is not only a welcome day out, “but it also gives you a good sense of scale.”
The goal of the ARTZ programs “is to get people to interact with each other as much as possible,” she said, acknowledging with a laugh that the day’s program had a lot of comments about South Africa. “It’s a little like improvisation sometimes,” she said. “I just have to be present and go with the flow.”
For Laura Westmoreland, the Associate Educator for Adult and Community Programs at the Brandywine, the ARTZ days are special. “The ARTZ programs seemed like a natural fit,” she said. “They provide the facilitators, and the programs are ideal for an aging audience.”
The museum also has sensory-friendly programs for families that were started after extensive input from community members and those who have autism spectrum disorders. Certain places, such as the open lobby area, were sometimes problematic, Westmoreland said. “We got such valuable feedback from adults with autism, who were able to tell us, ‘This is what it’s like,’” she said.
Sensory-friendly programs are held before the museum officially opens, to minimize noise and distractions from other visitors. “Stations are set up for people to focus on an object, or create art,” Westmoreland said. “During the holidays, we have a special day to tour the model trains exhibit. The lights are a bit lower, it’s quieter.
“We need to be accessible all the time,” she said of the museum, “but for these special programs, families appreciate being with others who understand.”
Registration is available through www.ARTZphilly.org. The program is free.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email email@example.com.