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By Safiya Merchant
A group of young adults worked hand-in-hand with residents of the Memory Support Center at Brecon Village this past fall to forge light out of darkness.
Working across generations and the struggles associated with living with dementia, the teens guided the group of Saline residents in making 10-sided star-shaped paper lanterns — orbs that would light up the sky on the longest night of the year.
The teens — members of the Ypsilanti Corner Health Center Youth Leadership Council — and the residents collaged layers of tissue paper onto pre-fabricated plastic sheets that were then folded and stitched together to create the stars.
In a program facilitated by Anne Mondro, associate professor of art and design, and Charlie Michaels, assistant director of student and faculty engagement at the College of Engineering’s Center for Socially Engaged Design, area young adults and local community members living with dementia have been united this past year to create seasonal public art installations centering on the themes of ‘light’ and ‘growth.’
Titled “Between the Earth and the Sky: Intergenerational Interactions of Visibility” and supported by a National Endowment for the Arts grant and U-M Office of Research grant, the two groups will focus on the theme of growth by creating a public art piece composed of handmade, geometric, concrete planters filled with herbs that will form a sensory garden in a tessellation design. Pursued over the course of the spring and summer, the project promotes personal growth through education and awareness and physical growth of the natural world around us.
Organizers aim for the program to serve as a model for other schools or facilities to facilitate intergenerational arts programming.
Together, Mondro and Michaels have turned academic scholarship into an act of public engagement, creating a classroom outside the campus to serve those who might not always have access to the university.
“The arts and creativity can impact society in so many different ways,” Mondro said. “It can generate discussions, it can bring people together. There’s so much potential for the arts to bring new experiences to communities. I feel that we can do that here.”
For the past decade, Mondro has collaborated with the U-M Geriatric Center & Institute of Gerontology Silver Club, designing and facilitating art programs for people living with dementia. She teaches a course where U-M students work with Silver Club community members to use art as a way to connect and learn from one another.
In cases of memory loss, Mondro said, people can sometimes lose a lot of their rights to make decisions. Art gives them a way to take that power back.
“They are contributing to society through art and that’s a big thing,” she said. “You can lose a lot of rights as a person with an illness because it’s often thought that you can’t contribute anymore to society.”
Michaels, a Stamps alumnus, has spent a majority of his career connecting younger populations to art.
In his prior position coordinating social engagement courses and programs at Stamps, Michaels brought undergraduate students to Detroit schools to partner in facilitating art and design workshops for young people.
“As I went through my early days as an artist, I found myself spending more and more time alone in the studio making art objects,” Michaels said. “Then those objects went into galleries all by themselves where people looked at them and that was it. I remember feeling like there had to be a way to let others into the process, and designing and facilitating programs like this one is a way to share the process of art-making to have a social impact.”
Their intergenerational art program also allows those living with dementia to become mentors to a young person, Michaels said.
To develop their community-engaged project, Mondro said they brainstormed, studied other works of public art, examined previous projects both she and Michaels had conducted in the past, explored materials and analyzed projects in terms of accessibility.
Their team first conducted several workshops with the teens, teaching them lantern-making skills as well as lessons about dementia, current scientific research on the issue and best practices for art projects with this select population.
The young people and residents were then brought together over the course of several weeks, working materials into what would become a public art installation.
Michaels said it’s essential that faculty and staff weave community engagement in their work and scholarship, as better research, design and academic work is produced when one understands the broader context.
“The ivory tower, there’s gates around it, it’s not easy to access and I don’t know if people always understand what academia is doing or what’s happening at the university or what is the benefit of all this research,” he said. “So if we can start to let people in and blur that line a little bit, that’s useful.”
For twin sisters Sakinah and Zakiyyah Rahman, participating in the U-M community art project has given them lessons they hope to take back home and put into action when interacting with their grandmother, who lives with memory loss.
The sisters said their experiences with the Memory Support Center’s residents has offered them insight into living with dementia, as well as inspiration to forge new memories with their grandmother.
“Using this project, I realize now we can do art projects, we can watch movies, we can just talk to one another,” Zakiyyah said. “And even though it might be hard and even though some days will go better than others, finding that I am able to do it with how I’ve been working with the residents at Brecon Village, I know that I’m able to do it.”
Cassie Starback, Brecon Village’s social services director, said Mondro brings a fresh perspective to how the community incorporates expressive arts into its life enrichment programming.
While the project connects people from different generations — breaking down the stigma and social isolation associated with the dementia experience — Starback said these projects connect residents to a greater purpose.
“The art sessions with Anne provide a creative outlet that gives purpose in people’s lives and we see it every day,” Starback said. “We see that the sessions provide meaningful interaction, social engagement, human connection — all of which leads to smiles, laughter, singing and sharing of stories.
“It’s not just people getting together to create a piece of art — it’s about building relationships.”
By Jeff Bleiler