Creation and Culture Care

In an Arts & Minds program, conversation is one of the leading forces. Conversation is the pathway to unpacking meanings embedded in the artwork. As an intern, I have the chance to sit on the outside and watch the conversations develop right before my eyes. Meaning weaves itself together naturally, revealing the moving relationship between art and shared experience. When attending Arts & Minds programs in Spanish, however, my attention was brought to the underlying importance of the program, which extends beyond the program’s art speculation.

When I attended a program this week that was entirely in Spanish, my usual routine was no longer plausible. I wasn’t able to do much more than smile and say hello as people entered the museum. As we stood in the lobby of El Museo Del Barrio, one of the teaching artists and a mentor of mine, Nellie, whispered to me that they were talking about Virgin Mary. I gasped and smiled, ahhh!, as if this piece of information suddenly tuned me into their conversation. However, this tiny piece of information did, in fact, make me feel more included. I found myself latching onto little clues such as this.

As the program went on, the language barriers became less visible. We went into the exhibition and gathered around a piece of art. I held onto the tones of the participant’s voices, their gestures, the laughter that would break out when that one woman on the left would say something with a skeptical look.

In Makoto Fujimura’s book, “Culture Care”, Fujimura writes about the importance of gathering together in the face of art. And one thing he presses is the importance of everyone, of all abilities, to be nurtured by art. In my previous blog posts, I have recounted Vanier’s influential perspectives of art and inclusivity. Fujimura emphasizes these lessons, teaching them through the message that, “culture care is to provide care for our culture’s “soul”, to bring to our cultural home our bouquet of flowers so that reminders of beauty- both ephemeral and enduring- are present in even the harshest environments…”

Attending Arts & Minds programs have revealed to me how important it is for all citizens to have the chance to gather together and express oneself through art. And through this, connect with the beautiful humans who are also present. Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease. Many people who live with Alzheimer’s Disease experience difficulties following conversations, along with hearing and speaking challenges. This put me in their shoes in a very unexpected way. In programs with patients who have more developed versions of dementia, some of them have a hard time speaking – some don’t speak at all.

Many people are unsure of what to do with people with Alzheimer’s, whether it be out of fear or with the lack of resources. Fujimura emphasizes that as artists, it is our responsibility to implement programs and care for all people’s creativity. Fujimura writes, “we may need to learn to cultivate these reminders of beauty in the same way flowers are cared for and raised. Culture care restores beauty as a seed of invigoration into the ecosystem of culture. Such care is generative: a well-nurtured culture becomes an environment in which people and creativity thrive.”

Afterwards, Nellie, one of the teachers with Arts & Minds (and one of my role models) came up to me. She said, “it’s humbling, isn’t it?” I agreed. It is humbling to sit in a room where everyone’s lives are so different from yours. The Arts & Minds program in Spanish gave me the distance to see more of my own difference, and to be humbled. As I clung to the little clues outside of language, the laughter shared and the moments of quiet, I saw a big group of friends persisting through their shared experience of something seen as hopeless or tragic.

Fujimura writes that, “Culture care is the imaginative effluence of being a faithful follower of Jesus in any time or place. It’s hope to borne into places where hope that is truly hope must be realistic, slow, disruptive, and limited.” We must extend our care to places such as Arts & Minds, where we confront and feel our differences. Through the act of creation, a connection emerged through all of us. Creation is God’s gift to us, and as an artist, it is our spiritual duty to spread creativity to all communities of people.

Under the light of creation and art, our differences glow.

Ode to the City

Ode to the City Part I

and today
I am reminded
that you will never be mine.

the child who’s nested in her mother’s skirt
the light that bounces up down
up down in central park
there was that one good cry on my way uptown
and the skinny man at the deli

I cannot steal you because I cannot see you
and you are not to take

you offer us all that you have
and it fills up our eyes lips hands
hands swimming
in your eternal sky

Ode to the City Part II

Ode to the City Reflection

When I set out to create this piece, I started with paints. I changed some key details in my second version amidst my growth and realizations of my place here in the city. In the original version, it also depicted a wrist reaching into a set of buildings. However, the wrist was bound by silver chains. The hand was grasping a melting shape representative of an earth. Living in New York City has been one of the greatest gifts – though with many gifts, we worry that we aren’t consuming enough of it. Receiving all of it. I often build up physical locations, romanticize them, wait for them to change me. This results in disappointment and fulfillment.

I aimed to capture this anxiety in my short poem at the beginning of this entry. And I aimed to capture that in my second version of the picture.

These key changes shift the attention from keeping the city to myself to acknowledging the way the city gives itself to us. There is a spirit that lives here, that follows us wherever we go. Once I leave this city, I will not have lost anything. It will be within me. When looking at this in a more spiritual context, it expresses the boundless love and impact that the love of a God offers us. While we often make efforts to hold onto physical and visible beings, this will never be ours. However, the love that exists beyond our grasp is what will be ours forever.

The Danger in “Then” versus “Now”

My thoughts on summer remain complicated –  unsure if I enjoy the temporary transformation of my usual life surroundings, people coming in and out, moving forward with their own personal agendas for a few weeks of freedom. Summer feels like a season where I consistently get stuck. What feels like being stuck in time, comparing what I was doing on this day exactly a year ago, how different things were then. There is a painful dissonance, a confusion that strikes each time I reflect. I find this to be true when I begin to think about my Type 1 Diabetes diagnosis. That is a constant place where the dissonance ignites, where I find myself disappointed and brokenhearted between the life I used to have and the life I have now. This holds true in many facets of life, including the work I am involved in this summer, with people with Alzheimer’s.

Vanier writes, “Throughout our lives there is the disorder created by sickness, accidents, loss of work, loss of friends… In human beings, there is a constant tension between order and disorder, connectedness and loneliness, evolution and revolution, security and insecurity. Our universe is constantly evolving: the old order gives way to a new order and this in its turn crumbles when the next order appears. It is no different in our lives in the movement from birth to death”. In summer, this heavy time of self-reflection, my abilities to find balance between the extremes grow more difficult. Vanier talks about how we try to control this transformation of time, something we all fall victim to. In my experience, this shows when I try to neglect my health and the current needs of my body. This never works out as I want and always leaves me unfulfilled.

I’ve found this to be true in the aspect of Alzheimer’s and aging as well. With my grandfather who has recently developed Alzheimer’s, there is this constant pull between before and now. Before he began to forget things and now, where things are so much more sad. This is absolutely not the case. It is about enjoying the days as they come, accepting them, and growing in its beauty and hope for tomorrow. That is one thing that I have grown to love about the Arts & Minds programs. Arts & Minds is a program that aims to live in the state of today, to enhance and to appreciate what any individuals have to bring to the table each day.

Vanier writes on the importance of this, saying, “to live well is to observe in today’s apparent order the tiny anomalies that are the seeds of change, the harbingers of the order of tomorrow”. Vanier is right. It is incredibly important to notice what we are offered today, to celebrate what ideas and emotions and memories might be present with us. Witnessing the act of living in the moment through the Arts & Minds programs have helped me to find comfort in the way things are now, not the way they once were, before any diagnosis or shift. Vanier’s texts have encouraged me to try and grow more comfortable with transitions between “old order” and “new order” by trying to break down that idea. Everything is fluid and we are just living.



Looking Life in Its Eyes

“One day in Paris, I was accosted by a rather disheveled woman who shouted at me: ‘Give me some money!’ We started to talk. I learned that she had just come out of a psychiatric hospital; I realized quite quickly that she had immense needs and I became frightened. I had an appointment and I didn’t want to be late, so I gave her a little money and went on my way, just like the Pharisee and the Levite in the gospel parable of the good Samaritan. I was frightened of being swallowed up by her pain and her need. What is this abyss that separates people? Why are we unable to look Lazarus straight in the eye and listen to him?”

Jean Vanier writes this in Becoming Human, a book I have been reading – and have been repeatedly moved by – during my time here in New York City. It has been two weeks in the city and two weeks since I have begun my internship with Arts & Minds. To give some background, Arts & Minds is a program that aims to weave art into the lives of people living with dementia and their caregivers. Throughout the week, I attend a range of programs at a set of different museums in New York City. With each program, I am receiving answers to new questions. “How well does paint work on pieces of tin foil? Which train do I take to get to the Metropolitan?” I am confronting bigger questions, as well, like “How does dementia impact individuals?” In my interactions with people of varied ethnicities and backgrounds, I have found there is not a singular answer to that question. Dementia may make an individual more quiet, or more talkative, more sensitive, or more flirty. There are more logistical questions: How loud do I have to speak? Or how much can I say? These are questions that I may be able to get a bit closer to answering with experience and observation.  As an intern, I have the gift of this extended time.

Each Arts and Minds programs follows the same sort of structure. We set up art supplies in the workspace, go over the day’s program, and wait for the attendees to arrive. This is a time for greeting one another, for gauging the energy and days of both the individual with dementia as well as their caregiver. Once we make our way into the gallery space, time is given to observe the art, to question it and to have bigger conversations. Once the conversation in the gallery space is concluded, we go to the studio art space. Everyone has time to create their own work of art. And then everyone has their time to share it. I believe that the beauty of the program is rooted in the way that a voice is granted to each of the participants. Participants, both people with dementia and their caregivers, are often refused a voice; Arts and Minds restores that power to them.

The programs can pose discomfort and I believe that this is where the growth begins. When a person with dementia (PWD as they call it) might be having a difficult day, it is so much easier to look the other way. But what does this do? As Vanier observes, we are afraid to be touched. We are afraid to be tuned into the struggles that another is experiencing, but we are also tuned out of the beauty. Arts & Minds creates a space for both laughter and a space for seriousness. It is allowing me to be touched and encouraging me to question: why is it that we look away in the first place?

While the Arts and Minds programs allow me to get to get closer to new insights, I find myself leaving with more questions than I came with. These questions are not contained to the programs. You see, once I leave the program, I usually take the subway home. On the subway, it is not unusual for people to pass through and ask for money. On the walk home, it is not unusual to pass individuals on the sidewalk who are homeless. In fact, this is quite common. And it’s as if I hear Vanier asking me, “Why are unable to look Lazarus straight in the eye and listen to him?”

In the museum programs, I am able to look individuals in the eye and listen to them. But once I leave, why do I try so hard to look the other way? This is a crucial question to be asked. Vanier comments on the discomfort that people feel in the presence of disability, the fear and avoidance that persists. I am not exempt from this response. Vanier illuminates the beauty in keeping one’s eyes open, upon truly seeing the other, in much the same way that the Arts & Minds program teaches to me. As I move forward in my internship, I hope to seek out encounters and conversations, not only with Arts and Minds participants, but with the bigger community of those living around me in New York City.