Reflections on The Agewell Chataqua Project

Check out the Agewell Chataqua Project booklet to see photographs of the artwork that was exhibited.

By: Nicole Armos, ASC! Research Assistant



"What are your thoughts and feelings about ageing and the wellbeing of seniors in your community?"


This was the prompt that sparked an outpouring of over a 100 pieces of artwork, including videos, visual arts, performance, and poetry for the AGEWELL Chataqua Project’s 10-day art exhibit and series of dialogues and art workshops, held at the Vancouver Performing Arts Lodge in early June.


A collaboration between the International Centre for Arts for Social Change, Judith Marcuse Projects, Arts Health BC, and the City of Vancouver, the exhibit was the first of two phases of the AGEWELL research project, using arts-based facilitation to support cross-sector dialogue and action to help improve seniors’ wellbeing in our communities. The project, which is part of a field study for the ASC! research project, continues in the fall of 2014 with a series of Chataqua sessions (monthly arts-infused dialogues) that will explore in greater depth some of the key themes that surfaced in the exhibition, dialogues, and workshops.


Inspired by the artwork surrounding us, the public dialogues were very fruitful discussions on important issues such as housing and care models, funding needs, isolation, access to resources, life transitions, and the challenges and opportunities for advocacy and policy change. Additionally, I had the opportunity to participate in four art workshops, where the process of art-making evoked unique insights on ageing and the value of art in dialogues about social issues.


For instance, after Rup Sidhu introduced us to the basics of beat boxing, Indian rhythmic syllables, and using a loop pedal in his music workshop, he guided us through the process of collectively writing a song that exposed some of our fears about ageing: “Seasons shifting, spinning all around/ Time is speeding up, we are slowing down/ Forgetting, remembering, uncertainty/ How can I care, and who will care for me?”


Meanwhile, Judith Marcuse’s movement workshop, that led us through various mirroring and choreographic exercises, sparked a moment of hope as one 88 year old participant expressed her sense of surprise and inspiration at what her body could still do, reinvigorating her dream to develop dance and choreography projects for seniors.


Our subsequent discussion brought up different perspectives about seniors involved in art making. For example, one participant recalled seeing Youtube videos that portray seniors dancing in a mocking light, whereas in other circles, senior dancers are admired for their expertise. Similarly, many felt that seniors’ artwork is often patronized (“Oh, that’s so nice!”) instead of being seen to offer a valuable contribution to society.


However, the collection of artwork created for the exhibit directly challenged this view, demonstrating that artwork by people of all ages can deepen and enrich insight and conversations about complex social issues.


The value of artwork in the development of dialogue and action around seniors’ wellbeing could perhaps be best illustrated through the free writing exercise in the storytelling workshop that Claire Robson facilitated. Offering us writing prompts such as “my biggest triumph” or “my biggest loss”, Claire instructed us to begin by describing the story’s setting for three minutes, and then to write about the characters, before narrating the story itself. As Claire explained, by “entering the stories from the side” the resulting pieces become incredibly visual and tangible, and allow us to “stumble upon” metaphors and images that communicate subtle aspects and subplots of the stories—much like the art pieces in the exhibit brought to light nuances about the experience of ageing that may have escaped a purely verbal dialogue.


The fourth workshop on puppetry, facilitated by Maggie Winston, helped us to enter the conversation on ageing from a very unexpected but eye-opening angle: childhood. We were given large-scale “humanette” puppets that were dressed up as children. These were pinned to the user’s neck so that our heads became the puppets’ heads, and Maggie encouraged us to revisit our childhood through hand-games and skits. The juxtaposition of the childlike puppets with our own adult and senior faces highlighted how many of our emotions and struggles around ageing are echoed in different ways throughout our life: feelings of isolation and loss, lifestyle transitions, the search for agency and voice, or worries about financial security.


Nonetheless, as one participant said, our burdens are lighter when shared. By bringing together the community and reframing perspectives, art opens up pathways for understanding, respect, and mutual support. The first phase of the AGEWELL project was a rallying cry for intergenerational, arts-based work promoting the wellbeing of seniors in our community—a definite goal as we move on in the project.
 

Check out the Agewell Chataqua Project booklet to see photographs of the artwork that was exhibited.