Thursday, April 20, 2017

Franconia Sculpture Park 2015 - Hot Metal Artist - Rosemarie Oakman



Tell me a little bit about your project.
I founded and directed a project called Alzheimer’s Glass and Iron, which is a cross-generational arts program. We are certified by the Alzheimer’s Association and their Memories in the Making watercolor workshop to go into nursing homes and facilitate watercolor workshops as well as sculpture workshops with the elderly who have Alzheimer’s and dementia. So since I’ve been here at Franconia we’ve been painting and sculpting the lakes in this region. I conducted the program with over 35 elderly individuals in the Twin Cities and the nearby St. Croix Valley.  They all created different bodies of water that have memories connected to them, and the clay sculptures were cast in iron at the Community Collaboration Hot Metal Pour on August 1.

What happens to the sculptures after you cast them?
I give the sculptures a colorful patina and then give them back to the elderly. One of the really upsetting parts of the program is that the elderly really have no recollection of making the sculptures because they’re dealing with memory loss. So we’ve added their names to the bottom of the lakes and that gives it a more personal touch. They are on round plates so it’s a very familiar touch of someone holding this round object because it resembles a dish which each of these people has held in their hands.

How did you get started with this project?
I started this program when I was at Alfred University. I always had a passion for working with the elderly and I minored in geriatric. While I was there I started a club that would go out and do art activities with the elderly. There were a lot of people that were mixed in with the cognitively normal functioning residents who had Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. And confusing little things would happen. I would ask someone how old they were and they would say “oh I’m 15” and I’d be sitting across from someone who is in their 80’s. That led me to investigating Alzheimer’s a little more. I became very sympathetic towards the disease and what it’s doing to the individual, as well as their families. This project is a way of using art to comfort both the individual and their families because the object cast in iron is something that will live on for as long as the family wants to hold onto it.

What’s your favorite part of the project?
My favorite part of the project by far is the outreach with the elderly. You see a really dramatic change from the beginning of the workshops to the end of the workshops, with people’s moods lightening up. They become much more imaginative, and are much more cognitively engaged, which is really nice to see because in nursing homes and assisted living facilities people aren’t always receiving one-on-one interaction. This is one-on-one attention is specifically focused on them and their memories in a very positive light, in a way that they are able to reminisce.  In the workshops, many times people are reminiscing about their favorite memories and then that goes off on a tangent. No matter where they are within their memory loss they do pick out their favorite memories. It’s very sweet to see the artwork they create. Last week in one of the workshops, one of the women was incredibly proud of her painting of the lake and she screamed out “I can’t wait to show this to my mom and dad,” so in her mind she’s a young child but there is still that enthusiasm and go-get-em point of view about her artwork, so that’s really nice to see. And just how the arts can affect someone who is cognitively impaired in such an impactful way.

What is the relationship between the materials glass and iron with people with Alzheimer’s?
When I started the program, I was creating the watercolor paintings using only iron colored oxides. And we started off just using iron which is a really dominant mineral in this earth. It’s everywhere; it’s in our bodies and running through our blood. It’s one media that kind of connects us all. So we were using iron oxides and then creating the sculptures based in iron and that was the artistic view for this program. But there are always kinks involved, so as we were creating paintings with just red and yellow and black iron oxide with people who were suffering from memory loss and already confused, and they were like “I can’t paint the sky yellow and I don’t want to paint the grass red.”  We were of course catering to them and their needs so we introduced a watercolor brand from Germany that’s recommended by the Alzheimer’s Association. In doing that we wanted to add that bright rich color to our sculptures so we added glass. Two of my close friends and colleagues from college are glass blowers so they took over the glass portion of the program.
What’s the most important lesson that this opportunity at Franconia has taught you?
Since I’ve been at Franconia, I’ve been expanding the program in more ways. Meaning not limiting it to just sculpture but opening it up to all artistic media. So that would mean bringing in people who do performance and screenprinters, and painters and photographers and having them all create art with the elderly and make their own artwork based off of the elderly’s paintings. That’s something I’ve been thinking more about and will be in the next stages of planning soon. It’s interesting to come to a sculpture park and think “I guess we should break away from sculpture,” but I’ve just been thinking a lot about taking those next steps since being here.

What are you plans after leaving Franconia?
After leaving Franconia I’m going to start looking into graduate school within arts administration. I would love to continue the Alzheimer’s Glass and Iron Project, which I think will become Alzheimer’s Artworks for as long as Alzheimer’s is still not cured.

(Paintings below created by 'Memories in the Making' Workshop Participants. The prompt for the painting workshops were Minnesota's Lakes.  )

Clay Lakes created by elderly individuals living with dementia in St.Paul and Minneapolis Minnesota, cast in iron at Franconia Sculpture Park by Rosemarie Oakman, during the Community Collaboration Pour in August, 2015.

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