Augustana/Adler collaboration debuts in August

By Gabby Landsverk

The group of senior citizens files into the art gallery. As soon as they see the works displayed on the walls and shelves, idle chatter ceases, replaced by excited exclamations of pride and delight.

“That’s me. I did that,” they say to each other. “Look at what I made.”

Part of a collaboration between Augustana Open Circle and Adler Graduate School, the “I am here” art school aims to dispel misconceptions about people living with dementia and similar conditions, by honoring their creativity and giving them a means to express their view of the world.

Program Coordinator Christine Dyrud said that art therapy offers a wealth of benefits to elderly participants, engaging them in a creative and social endeavor that also allows them to express their feelings and concepts of identity, memory and community.

“It’s been amazing to watch,” she said.

As words become difficult and memories fade through dementia, art therapy is a resource to help ground people in the world around them, to comfort them in moments of anxiety or fear and give them a new vocabulary to communication with loved ones.

“Art becomes a way for them to share their stories,” said Ellie Klingberg, Adler Graduate School art therapy intern. “For me, it’s a way to help people and give back through art.”

During the past several weeks, Dyrud and Klingberg have led Augustana members through various art exercises, including painting, sculpture and collage, focusing on various themes like landscapes, portraits and travel. Displaying selections of the art offers an opportunity for the artists, their loved ones, and the community to reflect on each individual’s unique life story and experiences, Dyrud said, while creating a bridge for social and emotional connections.

One artist at Augustana uses a sculpture to tell the story of her teaching experience, years prior. When words fail, the sculpture provides a tangible and evocative means to convey her ideas, the emotions behind the story and make a connection with people around her.

Many of the artists were excited to show off their collages, a collection of words and images pasted over a profile silhouette of each artist. The pieces are highly personal, a visual narrative of the unique life of each individual artist.

One of the artists, Bette Wille, whose work includes bright, abstract colors and landscapes, said she grew up using various forms of art as creative expression.

Sewing, drawing and other handicrafts were essential during the Depression, she recalled, as both entertainment and a practical means of providing for oneself, being self-sufficient and resourceful in incredibly difficult times.

“It’s hard to understand unless you’ve lived through it,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot, so we made do with what we had.”

Throughout the years, from her childhood through the tumultuous time of the Great Depression and now into her golden years, Wille said art has been a source of solace,

“It’s a way to keep busy, to pass the time,” Wille said. “I never thought of myself as an artist, but I guess I am one. That’s exciting, isn’t it?”

At the gallery exhibition at Augustana, Wille was able to view her art along with her daughter and grand-daughter, sparking fond memories and conversations about her past and strengthening the bond across generations. The person most surprised and impressed by Wille’s work, however, was Wille herself.

“Well, I guess I did do that,” Wille said. “Imagine that. Now I’m starting to remember.”

The I Am Here art show opens Aug. 10 at Adler Graduate School, 1550 East 78th Street, Richfield. A reception will be 10 a.m. to noon, the Augustana Open Circle Choir will perform at 10:45 a.m. and refreshments will be provided.

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