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Art Beyond Sight - Laboratory for Learning

Memories and Life Voyages in the Arts

Smiling woman holds up project showing Puerto Rican flag

Program Description

Art programs for seniors have great value, both to the individuals involved and society as a whole.  Art programs have tangible, physical, and mental health benefits by providing opportunities for participation in a larger community, and helping seniors maintain strength and coordination. The arts offer the opportunity for self-expression amidst loss, for achievement and re-engagement amidst voids and uncertainty. Many older adults face frequent loss in their lives—jobs, health, spouses, friends, leadership positions or income. The arts provide ample opportunities for lifelong learning and service to others. The arts community also benefits from seniors’ contributions and resources. Older adults are creators, mentors, teachers, tutors and advisors, sharing the wisdom that they have gained through a lifetime of experience.

In 2008, Art Education for the Blind (AEB) piloted a multi-sensory Senior Center Art Project, a series of eight one-hour-long sessions, as an outgrowth of AEB’s experiences in art and museum education. The program integrated art, writing, and music to provide opportunities for social interaction and cultural learning to enhance the lives of seniors. The program took place at two New York City sites: the Jacob Riis Senior Center in Manhattan and the Sunset Park Senior Center in Brooklyn.

As most of these centers’ clients are Spanish-speaking, primarily from Puerto Rico, this program focused on social and cultural themes relevant to 20th-century Latin America and immigrant life in the United States. Portraiture, landscape, and memory were used as part of an informal reminiscence, or life review, theme.

The program consisted of two parts: an art-making component in which the participants constructed a “memory” or “identity” box, and a musical component in which they sang and wrote an original song with the help of a professional musician. (Brian Muni, a songwriter, musician and occupational therapist, led the musical program.) The goal was to encourage seniors to express themselves creatively, using their memories and experiences as immigrants as a starting point.

In order to stimulate the art-making process, participants engaged in lively discussions of works by Latin American and North American artists that deal with themes of cultural heritage, family, and memory. These artists included Frida Kahlo, Edward Hopper, Jacob Lawrence, and Pepon Osorio. After these discussions, the participants were guided by artist and educator Ricardo Hernandez in creating their memory or identity boxes.

For each program’s final session, AEB and the senior center staff organized a social event at which participants displayed their artworks, writings, engaged in group singing, and shared their experiences with the staff and friends. Overall, the Senior Center Program was enthusiastically received by both the senior centers’ staff and clients.

Program Outline
Session One: Introduction–Memories and Life Storytelling In the Arts
Session Two: Memories and Life Storytelling in Song
Session Three: Memories and Life Storytelling in Assemblage Art
Session Four: Memories, Migrations and Neighborhoods
Session Five: Neighborhoods
Session Six and Seven: Migration Stories–Transitions & Destinations
Session Eight: Final Celebration
Original Music Lyrics: “El Coqui”

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