Fine Art Miracles
By Tess Almendarez Lojacono
formed a company about a year ago, whose mission is to bring educational experiences to those who otherwise may not have the opportunity to make and study fine art. I named my company “Fine Art Miracles” because the work my students do is truly miraculous. They make exquisite works of art and in the process, educate me about the human spirit by sharing their heroic struggles and helping me find ways to meet their needs and to honor their achievements. The following describes just a few of them.
She doesn’t know whether her husband stopped coming around because she kept forgetting his name, or if she forgot his name because he stopped coming around. It doesn’t really matter. Jane doesn’t like visitors anyway. They’re either bored with her as soon as they arrive or frightened by her. She can tell this by their incessant babble—one sided because she won’t condescend to play along.
Her assigned aide is Deedee.
“Janey! Janey, darling! Aren’t you coming to art class with us? Sure you are! You love art! You love drawing!” Jane scowls and looks away. “Come on! Your daughter says you used to be quite an artist. She wants you to be more involved.”
“Daughter? What daughter? I don’t have a daughter.”
“Now Janey, you do too.”
“Nope. Have about ten or twenty sons, but no daughters. Always wished I did!”
“Janey! Your daughter calls you every day from Florida! You know you know who she is! You’re not fooling anyone with that crazy stuff!”
Jane runs her finger over her teeth. She can still get around Dee if she wants to. All she has to do is fake a stomach ache or a head ache or a tooth ache—that’s always a good one—she’ll get to see that new dentist—the cute one! Of course, with Deedee in tow, it won’t be much fun. Jane draws attention to her teeth as often as possible. She’s the only one on her unit who still has her own and she means to keep them.
“Helen said she wanted you to participate more. She said—“
“Helen? Who’s Helen? Helen who?”
“Janey! Helen Brodowski! Your daughter!” Deedee sighs and gently places Jane’s feet on the foot pedals of her wheelchair. “Never mind,” she mutters. “You’re gonna like this. I swear it.” Then she gets behind the wheelchair and starts heading in my direction.
The combination of looking like my mother and having my husband’s nickname guarantees Skip a place in my heart almost immediately. She wheels herself in, arguing like someone’s forcing her along. “Art? I’m about as artistic as a doorknob! A corncob! Now my brother, Henry, he could draw like anything! Why, he’d holler like crazy if he saw me trying to make art!” Skip laughs until she coughs, then she stops, spits and wipes her mouth. For good measure she declares once more, “I’m no artist!”
Positioning her at a table, I reply, “Then you’re my favorite kind of student.” I lean in confidentially. “Skip, I can’t stand artists! Dreadful people, nothing worse!” We chuckle together. “But tell me about that name. How’d you ever get the nickname ‘Skip’? Or was that your given name?”
“Let’s see now. My given name is Elvira. Couldn’t be short for that could it?” She taps her chin. “Must’ve been a reason for it…danged if I can remember it, though!” She frowns. “Might as well just skip it!” She perks up at that. “Oh, skip it!” Then she starts laughing all over again and some of the others join in.
I hear one of the residents remarking, “That Skip! She’s the life of the party, isn’t she?”
The other resident nods. “Life of the Home, you mean.”
Life of the home, I think.
“Now, Honey, don’t let me forget I’m getting my hair done at eleven. I can stay till then, but only till then, understand? You got something else in mind; it just won’t work for me. Not today! I got my son coming to visit.” Betty tucks her lap robe more firmly around her. “Those crazy aides, bringing me to an art class when I got company coming!”
“Don’t worry Betty,” I pat her shoulder. “We have plenty of time.”
“Oh, sure. That’s what my husband said when we was ready to have our fifth child. ‘We got time, Sugar!’ Poor thing was born in the field.” She shook her head, frowning and smiling all at the same time. Eight children. The fifth one was born in a field. His name is Paul and he still comes to see his Mama at the Home every week. He loves her drawings.
“You can make one for Paul today. What time is he coming?”
One of the aides catches my eye. She frowns and quickly draws her finger across her throat. I raise my eyebrows. “Say, Betty, I have another idea. Why not make one for that granddaughter of yours? You could give it to her for, for her birthday or something! She’d like a picture, wouldn’t she?”
Betty’s eyes narrow. “Depends. What are we drawing today?”
I hold up a bouquet of red flowers. “We’re doing Picasso’s Rose Period! Red flowers! What do you say?”
“Well, she’s more partial to purple…”
“Great! Here’s a very red purple that Picasso used when he first went from the Blue Period to the Rose Period. Perfect!” I hand her a purple flower with large petals and tiny yellow berries in the center. She smiles and all at once I know it’s gonna be okay.
Mary is already there when I come in, every time. She sits hunched over the table, eyes blinking, lips pressed tight together, eagerly waiting for her paper and pastels. Mary takes whatever I give her and gets right to work, drawing and coloring the artificial flower or fruit that we’re working on. If she understands the lecture portion of the class, she never gives any sign. She doesn’t speak, but puts her head down and works hard, as if this is a task she must complete like any other. I imagine that she was a phenomenal housekeeper, a determined cook, efficient mother, once upon a time. Her work is unique, colorful, solidly executed. You can pick it out easily among the residents’ work. Mary has a distinct style, which never varies, no matter what we are studying.
The Other Mary
“Here you go! Mary can do art! Come on, Honey, sit! Sit! She can sit here, right?” A quick, smart aide bullies the other Mary into a padded chair, and hurriedly leaves the room.
There are about eight minutes to go before the class ends and I have to pick up my kids after school. (So leaving on time is an issue.) “Who does that aide think she is?” I fume. I hesitate to go over. Maybe this Mary just wants to watch. Maybe she doesn’t want to draw.
Maybe I should do my job.
I glance at the clock and put on a grin. “Hello, Mary! I’m so glad you’re here. How about drawing with me? Here’s a flower and we’re using this lovely pink paper today.”
Mary’s eyes are full of tears. “Oh, honey, I don’t know what I’m doing here. I want to go home. I’ve been here for months now, and nothing is right. I gotta get out of here. Can you help me?”
I start her drawing for her. “Well, let’s see now. I can’t really take you anywhere, but I can show you how to have fun while you’re here. Do you like flowers? Which is your favorite?”
“Oh, that’s easy!” She murmurs. “Roses! I carried red roses on my wedding day!” A tentative smile curls her lips.
“Red roses? You don’t say! You ever hear of Picasso’s Rose Period...?”
These are the active people, the vigorous, healthy, normal ones, who gather once a month, to permit me to discuss with them the work of Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso or another of the masters. They draw and paint and make collage. Some venture so far as to do metal tooling. For them the art of living has been honed to an expectant acquiescence. All are patient. Most are cheerful. Even the reluctant ones leave pleased with what they have accomplished.
I walk the halls of nursing homes, saying hello, hugging people, keenly aware of the life that throbs within these walls, the people who try to make it a home, rather than a pit stop on the way home. I drive from one facility to another, welcoming anyone who is willing, and even those who are not, into my art classes. We work. We laugh. We make art.
The ones that really break my heart are those who cannot join us, those who sit, with vacant stares or intense frowns, facing a blank wall, or the ones who cradle baby dolls. You see them, cooing and singing, tucking a blanket around the doll, trying to feed it the snack an aide has left for their own afternoon treat; desperate mothers, displaced by time and consciousness. Others retreat into their own childhoods rather than to their less distant married lives, forgetting that their mothers, brothers and sisters are long since gone.
I think of this, when my children ask me to play with them. Will these days envelope them, when they are old and all alone? It makes me hug them tighter, kiss them often, treasuring what God has blessed us with, knowing it is fleeting. Memories of today may one day be all we have. Let those memories be comforting, Lord, a fine place to end our days.