After two intensive weeks observing OMA sessions, working directly with artists living with dementia and taking various Gerontology classes at Miami University, I thought that this would be a good time to reflect on my learnings.
What is OMA?
OMA was created in 2007 by Dr Elizabeth “Like” Lokon, who combined her undergraduate education in fine arts with her graduate studies in education and gerontology to design an intergenerational art program specifically for people living with dementia. OMA’s mission is ‘to build bridges across age and cognitive barriers through art’. The programme is grounded in person-centred ethics and founded on the fact that people with dementia are capable of expressing themselves creatively.
Why Did I Decide to Go and Train with OMA?
Why does a PhD student in drama decide to go and train with a visual art programme? Well, for me it was not about the art-form, but rather about what the organisation stands for -agency and highlighting the value of people living with dementia. The care home residents are recognised as artists, people with creative abilities instead of with memory loss in this asset-based model. What interested me was to observe the process used by the company to highlight the agency of the artists and how the intergenerational work could enhance this. I was curious to see if the creative process really allowed for equality between the participants and which relationships developed from it.
Furthermore, OMA has a strong methodological framework, where every step of the process has been carefully thought through and evaluated by the staff and research team of the Scripps Gerontology Centre. Whereas many intergenerational art programmes lack solid evaluation, OMA recognises the importance of research and continually evaluates their work using qualitative and quantitative methods. I was keen to learn new evaluation tools which could be adapted to my research.
Reflexion of Some of OMA Key Principles
- Creating Rules to Enable Creative Expression
It might sound like a paradox, but through establishing rules OMA allows for choices and creative expression. Dr Lokon recognises that it can be overwhelming for people living with dementia to choose between too many options, so OMA takes away the fear of the unknown by offering a limited amount of choices (for example, by providing no more than 2-4 colours or painting tools). However, what the artists decide to do with these colours and tools are entirely up to them, which means that every final artwork looks unique.
Here are some examples of artwork using the same methods and steps:
As a performing arts practitioner, my experience and process are quite different from OMA. Indeed, my work and the work of practitioners I have been studying (Anne Basting, Entelechy, Elder Clowns etc.) usually employ a more ‘organic’ process, where the creative action first begins with participant’s suggestions, such as a sound, movement or verbal proposition. However, OMA already came with a set plan for the session and something for the participants to work from. What was interesting to me was to see how some restrictions of choices could enhance creative freedom by progressively building the artist’s confidence. I was surprised to see how different the final artwork looked, very often translating the artist’s interests or personality.
For example, one of the artists with whom I worked did not like abstract art and decided to use the tools and colours offered to re-interpret the piece, using some more defined shapes when painting, such as a series of squares or straight lines. Some artists would methodologically build their piece, stroke after stroke, when others would freely spread the paint on the paper and experiment with the various colours.
- Supporting Without Controlling
Each artist is paired with a college student, and the pair stay together throughout the whole semester, so they can build a relationship of trust. Before starting work with the artist, the students have all undergone thorough training, where they are taught how to support without imposing any creative decisions. This means that a student might help with mechanical aspects of the project, such as putting the paint on the brush or holding the paper for the artist, but are not allowed to make any artistic choices. OMA is thus not a ‘co-creation’ project; it is about building relationships first and foremost, and supporting people living with dementia to express themselves creatively. If an artist with late-onset dementia cannot hold the tools but still wishes to participate, the students will help him/her by asking questions throughout the session (which colour would you like? where should I place the colour? etc.) so the choices are still made by the artist. The students are also encouraged to use the instructions sheet as an ‘equaliser’ and ask the artist to read the steps, if possible, so they are not perceived as ‘the ones with knowledge’ or in a position of power.
- Recognising People as Artists
What particularly struck me was the pride of the artists after completing their piece of art, as the programme always closes with ‘art talk’, where the artists and students discuss the artwork which has been created using accessible art vocabulary. For example, instead of simply saying ‘this is beautiful!’ the participants talk about ‘contrasts’, ‘texture’ and ‘movements’, which reinforce the fact that the participants living with dementia has the status of ‘artist’ and that this is not just an arts and crafts session.
An important part of the programme is the OMA Annual Art Show, where the artwork is exhibited for three weeks and auctioned. This particular attention to aesthetic, detail and taking the time to celebrate the artist particularly caught my attention.
- Building Relationships
Furthermore, I was thoroughly impressed and inspired by the commitment of the OMA students to the programme. Most students taking part are aged 18-23, either undergraduate or in a master programme, and have committed to OMA on top of a busy timetable, including work, athletic and volunteer responsibilities. Although OMA is part of the Gerontology programme and can be taken for credit, the students do not receive any grade for participating, meaning that the participation is mostly based on self-motivation. I was genuinely impressed by how seriously these young people took their roles, the way they spoke about their partner with pride, and their willingness to constantly go the extra mile to help the programme. This reinforces my initial belief that training is key in intergenerational programming to promote positive interactions.
I hope that the training can be delivered to in the UK shortly. If this could be of interest, please get in touch!