Conversations Inspired by the Power of Art

Fairview’s Creative Expressions program challenges residents

By Kristian Partington

The wonderful thing about art is its ability to evoke emotion and inspire deep thought and reflection among those who soak in it. For a group of residents at Fairview Nursing Home in Toronto (one of the most recent additions to the Schlegel Villages family of long-term care and retirement homes) art is at the core of a program called “Creative Expressions.  

Modern art reproduction
Fairview residents interpreted the work of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat
(above) in a program called Creative Expressions, making their own   
images and exploring the depth and power of art in the process.

The program, which was developed following a resident planning meeting earlier this year, encourages participants to explore their own creativity while sometimes diving deep into the difficult subjects some forms of art investigate.

On one end of the Creative Expressions spectrum, residents painted rocks – a simple opportunity to do something fun and light. Some of the final products looked like bugs and others like strawberries; a few of the residents offered them as gifts to their grandchildren. It was an exercise in smiles and happiness.

On the other end of the spectrum, participants spent 6 weeks delving into the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a famed American artist who explored the inherent dichotomies buried within class, race and individualism in an increasingly complex world. His work began in the late 1970s in the streets of New York with cans of spray paint, and continued to expand through poetry, music and canvas until he died of a heroin overdose in 1988.

The Art Gallery of Ontario featured Basquiat’s work from February to mid-May this year, so the Fairview residents took time to discover who he was and what inspired him while researching his extensive body of work. They then reinterpreted one of his creations before finally visiting the AGO to see more than 85 of his original pieces.    

“This program can be whatever the residents want it to be,” says Fairview recreation director Julie Music.  “I love the contrast between painting a rock one day and feeling so good about it . . . and then, in contrast, something that took a month and a half to work on.” The thorough exploration of Basquiat’s work inspired some deep conversations, Julie points out, some of which centred on the topics of addiction and mental health, which don’t necessarily get talked about in long-term care environments among residents. The reality is, however, that these issues have impacted many of them in one way or another at some point in their lives, whether personally or through a loved one.

“In the discussion that ensued, it was clear that the addiction suffered by this young artist evoked many strong emotions in our residents,” Julie says.

Carole Popkey, for example, chose not to participate in the Basquiat program, telling Julie that she could picture herself as the artist’s mother and that she was saddened by the fact that he passed away at such a young age. “I like the art program, in general, but that particular artist I didn’t care for,” Carole says. “He was obviously an angry young man and he expressed it very well.” She interpreted a painting by a different artist during the program and chose not to visit the AGO “because I knew I would feel terrible when I went through the exhibit because I reacted to it so strongly just seeing the reproductions.”

At the beginning, both Carole and fellow resident Lorrie Nesbitt agreed that the subject matter in Basquiat’s work was dark, but after Lorrie visited the AGO, she had a slightly different understanding.

“I thought it was terrific,” Lorrie says. “I really enjoyed it and learned a lot.”

Now the residents and team members are working on different forms of creative expression. Some may be as simple as painting a rock while others might dig much deeper. The beauty is that this is a resident-driven initiative that isn’t afraid to test boundaries and, as Julie says: “This is what art should be, something that evokes emotion. We don’t judge and we don’t put value on whether it’s liked or disliked – it’s all valued.”