Coffee, Conversation and Art, for people living with Dementia at the Royal Academy – May 2017

Conversation, having a chat, should be an easy thing, particularly with family or a loved one. Passing the time of day, having a catch up and a natter is something you take for granted. Recently I have struggled with this simple thing when I visit my aunt as she has Dementia. She doesn’t know who I am, or why I have come. I ask her if she has had a good week, she can’t remember, I ask her if her son has visited, she can’t remember. Every 10 or 15 minutes she asks me if I am married and where I live. She tells me she is not my aunt.

I have found it hard to have a conversation. Over time I have realised she remembers the old music hall songs. Years ago she would dress up in her ‘pearly’ outfit and sing in care homes. A few times when I was about 10 or 11 she took me with her. On my last visit we sang ‘My Old Man (said follow the van)’ and ‘Waiting at the Church’. I struggled to remember the words but they come back to her strong and clear.

IMG_5035Music is a trigger that reaches deep inside her. I have come to the Royal Academy on a Monday in May for a ‘Coffee and Conversation’ session for people living with Dementia and their carers, because art can do that too. It can reach inside and release something. The session I have come to is a monthly meet up for 1 and a half hours, it costs £3 and carers go free. There is tea and coffee and the famous Royal Academy biscuits.

Most of those who come are couples, they are regulars. There are two rooms and two pictures to choose from. Two artist practitioners, Harry and Kim, lead the session and specially trained access volunteers are on hand to help too.

We sit round a picture and begin, we are in one of the Royal Academy private rooms and not in the public gallery spaces. We have a large colour photocopy in front of us that we can look up close at. The label next to the painting is covered over, we don’t know the painter, the period or the title.

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IMG_5042We are encouraged to say how we feel about the painting. Do we like it? How does it make us feel? What is the subject? What is the narrative? Answers are tentative at first so we start with a little geography. Where is the painting set? For someone it is a Japanese garden for another it is Spain or maybe Greece, it is Mediterranean.

img_5039.jpgOne of the group comments on the difference between the photocopy and the original, the painting has atmosphere and depth, the reproduction is flat and lifeless. We talk about the statue at the back of the painting, is it precious? Is it important? Who is it?

IMG_5046A chap near me recalls Bernard Berenson, I don’t know the name. His wife explains he was an art historian and critic. The words come haltingly, they take a while. I realise how important it is, this space and time. The volunteers have a difficult job, to support but not over talk. The artists leading the session make sure everyone gets their chance to speak.

We talk about the painting giving us a sense of time and place. We talk about the ladies in the foreground. The words begin to flow, perhaps a harem, there is a laziness, a languor, for me they look bored. There are no wrong answers. We talk about the women’s clothing, is it everyday? A uniform? With a pattern repeated? We talk of their posture, the women sitting on the floor twisting uncomfortably. We talk about the one who poses, is she in a huff? Or is she dancing? What is their relationship? Have they argued?

IMG_5049Kim takes off her shawl, a soft white cotton. We pass it round and think of the folds and feel the fabric. One chap holds the shawl and looks closely at the painting, another lady sniffs the faint perfume. The senses are gently prodded awake. We use small frames to isolate sections of the picture, what do we notice? What do we focus on?

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More questions; Is it a garden? A house? A courtyard? What plants? What time of year? We debate – is that a step or a pool in the middle of the path? We look at the plants, foliage and leaves. Kim passes round leaves she has brought with her, we break them and rub them between our fingers. We smell basil and bay. There is citrus, lemons, bright yellow and waxy. Kim cuts one open, the smell is sharp and fresh. It makes me think of warmth and sun, cool drinks and ripe juiciness, of thirst and heat.

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A step or a pool?

All this conversation, an hour and more, we talk and talk, not once of who the artist is or the technique, we don’t need a complex language of art appreciation. Finally, finally, at the end the big reveal. It is John Singer Sargent, it is 1910, it is Tuscany. It is called – At Torre Galli: Ladies in the garden. Finally Harry fills us in on technique and Sargent’s life. Perhaps the ladies are in fact the same person modelled three times. The location, the villa Torre Galli is near Lucca, owned by an English duke who entertained his guests there and invited artists to enjoy the surroundings.

We talk of Sargent’s place of birth, his career and his technique, we touch brushes and tools. We talk of his circle and his friends, of his reputation and critics. After nearly and hour and a half we look at the label.

IMG_5064Just like this blog we have talked of art and colour and ideas of summer and life. We have not talked of diagnosis or prognosis of outcomes or what has gone. No talk of what is lost or can’t be found or what won’t come back. No mention of remembering or trying to remember. We were all present in a moment, we shared it. Unlike that painting there will be no everlasting permanence to this time we spent or the conversation we have had. But it feels like we have carved some time and space to connect, to talk and to be present. It is that feeling that is hard to describe, that perhaps doesn’t need words, that I hope will last and have permanence.

I am not sure what I expected on coming to this session, but it was important that I came. It was important that I shared it. It is even more important that the team at the Royal Academy run this monthly event.

A picture, a coffee and a cookie, a little conversation, it is the simplest thing in the world and sometimes it is the hardest. If you want to know what wellbeing in museums and galleries is all about then this is it.

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With thanks to Kim and Harry who let me join the session. Also thanks to Molly Bretton who runs access at the Royal Academy.

Coffee and Conversation is a monthly event costing £3 and carers go free. For more information please see the website – the next session is on the 12th June https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/event/art-coffee-conversation-june 

For more access events at the Royal Academy please look at the website – https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/events/tag/access-events

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