I am one of six artists selected to work on a three-year research project exploring the impact of experimental art practice within dementia support contexts. Funded by Arts Council England’s ‘Celebrating Age’ programme and The Baring Foundation, the project is a collaboration between Bluecoat, Liverpool’s centre for contemporary art, and Belong who offer bespoke support and living for those on the dementia journey. Liverpool John Moores University are undertaking the evaluation and the other artists are Brigitte Jurack (sculpture), Philip Jeck (music and video), Roger Hill (storytelling), Suki Chan (video) and Mary Prestidge (movement and dance).
The three-year project has commenced with a six-month pilot in Belong Crewe before moving onto Birkdale and Chester. During an early visit to Crewe, I noticed a lady sitting on her own in one of the households. Aged 89, Pegeen had just moved in before Christmas and during our chat, she revealed that her father "did some writing." Pegeen's father turned out to be Liam O'Flaherty and reading his beautiful short stories set on the West Coast of Ireland, I was struck by how he introduced each character by describing their eyes before anything else. I invited Pegeen to read these sections and offered the recordings to artists and musicians, including some current and ex-Leeds Beckett students, to remix and began asking other Belong residents to look into my own eyes and write down in four words what they saw, a continuation of my FOUR WORDS project. Rather than the artists observing 'the other', I invited others to observe us observing them. The word 'tired' appears often (!) along with trustworthy (twice), beautiful, wise, sharp, tannish, bright, kindly and 'blue Bobby Charlton Eyes' which I'll take any day. Pegeen looked into my eyes and wrote 'I see small things.'
These FOUR WORDS became a short animation screened within Belong Crewe, with printed versions dotted around the Village amidst the black & white portraits of the Beatles, Morecambe & Wise, John Wayne and Shirley Bassey. Going through a similar experience with my own father, I was curious but sceptical about how my practice could impact in any way but amongst some moments of genuine magic so far in Crewe, the project has offered wider opportunities for me to communicate with Professor Claire Surr and others in our School of Health & Community Studies who are researching dementia from other perspectives.
As part of National Care Home Open Day on 28 June, The Guardian visited Crewe and published this article yesterday.