Drawing Life

Life Drawing Janet Hemsley

DRAWING LIFE aims to bring life drawing classes to people living with dementia and to exhibit selected work in public galleries.  An unanticipated consequence has been the positive effect the classes have had on carers.  The act of drawing has offered new ways for carers to communicate with and respect participants.    

The classes took place at Hastings Court, a residential care home in Hastings, West Sussex.  Having visited other care homes I have identified a need for arts activities.  The project was funded by the Big Lottery Fund and ran from July 2015 to May 2016.

Description of the arts activity

Drawing Life held a set of 10 life drawing classes.  Two teachers led each class; Robert Sample an artist and art teacher at Hastings College, assisted by Judy Parkinson.  An experienced life model, Mike Mitchell, attended each class.  Our main medium for drawing was charcoal on paper.  Between five and ten people attended each class, along with their professional carers and family members.

The act of drawing is a kind of language for those who have lost some or all speech, and facilitates participants and carers to communicate in other ways.  People who may or may not have done life drawing before react in many different ways through their sketches.  The drawings reveal something fascinating about life and memory to both the participants themselves and others who view their work.

Selected drawings and a short video can be viewed on the website.  www.drawinglife.org

Details of the project participants

In consultation with the care home, people living with dementia participated in the classes, with carers and family members who sometimes also took part in drawing.  The staff at the care home suggested that residents attend classes, often using their knowledge of residents’ health and wellbeing thinking they would enjoy and benefit, so to a certain extent attendance was selective, but it was open to all who wanted to attend.

Project management

In consultation with the care home, people living with dementia participated in the classes, with carers and family members who sometimes also took part in drawing.  The staff at the care home suggested that residents attend classes, often using their knowledge of residents’ health and wellbeing thinking they would enjoy and benefit, so to a certain extent attendance was selective, but it was open to all who wanted to attend.

Evaluation methods and findings

In order to evaluate the project, its outcomes and potential I invited independent experts from both science and arts backgrounds to observe the classes in action and the drawings produced and I requested feedback.  There is no feedback from the participants themselves because of their medical conditions.  

We found:

  • There are behavioural and emotional benefits for participants.
  • Through participation in these life drawing classes, teachers, medical practitioners and carers review and strengthen their relationships with the participants, and develop and enhance their professional skills and approaches in other contexts.
  • The classes help carers, families and friends build empathy, understanding and interaction.
  • Public reaction to the project was extremely positive.

Robert Sample, Art Tutor for Drawing Life
I’ve changed my approach to looking while teaching these classes.  It’s quieter way of observing.  Other classes I teach are planned and pacey, these are quieter, working at a different rate.  Here we focus on allowing people to draw, rather than what you want from them.  You watch the pace people are working at, you look at their surprise and you can share it.’

Mike Mitchell, Life Model for Drawing Life
‘To see these people intensely engaged and to see them reflect on their drawings has been tremendously moving.  To get to the point at which they can exhibit is remarkable, having started saying I can’t do this, I can’t see.  This has been a revelation.'

Dr Paresh Malhotra, Behavioural Neurologist, Charing Cross Hospital
Familiarity makes things easier, even if someone can’t explicitly remember having done the task before, and if they are doing something like this on regular basis, I think it would genuinely help.

Being able to sustain attention and concentrate because people are in this setting, the task of drawing can be done for longer.  With encouragement from the teachers and sitting with their peers, you can see people wanting to try, making the effort.  So I think to have regular classes has a positive effect.

Without having explicit memory of what was done the week before, people have been affected and the way they work has changed.  The work has improved and everyone feels more confident - that in itself is quite an achievement.

These classes are much more valuable than doing something passive, such as sitting and watching television, or watching something happen in front of you.  It’s the engagement, it’s the tactile nature of things, being able to feel what you’re doing – it has a lot of value.

Chris Milton, Retired Senior Lecturer in Art
Without formal training, the drawers are approaching territory that artists work hard to achieve and realize, that of spontaneous non-judgmental expression.  Often when people draw, there is always the inhibition: is it good enough or is it embarrassing?  But within these drawers, there is a natural devil-may-care spirit.  All art aspires to express an inner sense of self and to define one’s place in the world, and curiously these works however superficial they might at first seem, have a deep sense of integrity.  We all have visual triggers that summon up wanted or unwanted baggage, hidden narratives and deep frustrations, but these realizations might very well be rooted in the deep subconscious.  

This project has value for the individuals, as a non-passive activity, and it has value for the community; it is beautiful art to be appreciated, possessing a sense of many selves and voices.

Local Press links
http://hastingsonlinetimes.co.uk/hot-topics/health-matters/drawing-and-d...

http://hastingsonlinetimes.co.uk/hot-topics/health-matters/life-drawings-by-dementia-sufferers-at-haf

Supported using public funding by the Arts Council England