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Communicating Through Art

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"Storytelling at the Tweed"

Larson, Caywood, and Carlson
From left: Danielle Larson, Kendra Caywood, and Lynette Carlson

Looking at a painting can trigger thoughts and emotions. It can spark a memory that, in turn, can be shared. For people with memory loss or traumatic brain injury, who don’t communicate as they once did, viewing paintings and then talking about them can be a powerful way for these individuals to open up and express themselves. That is why the Tweed Museum of Art, UMD’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, and the Northern Regional Center of the Alzheimer's Association have partnered to create “Storytelling at the Tweed,” a program for individuals with dementia or traumatic brain injury.

Susan Hudec, education director at the Tweed Museum of Art, developed the program, chose the works of art, and trained the graduate students who act as tour guides and lead the discussions. Lynette Carlson, an instructor in UMD’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the College of Education and Human Services Professions, who supervises the graduate students, points out that “as a person experiences dementia, doors close. Isolation comes on very quickly – isolation from family and friends.” The discussions are designed to get participants talking and sharing.

During the tour, the graduate students use four paintings in the Tweed collection as their conversation focal points. After viewing and discussing the paintings, the participants are encouraged to make collages that illustrate significant aspects of their lives and to share them with the group. “Collage,” Carlson said, “is a great way to to trigger memories and relate to family members and friends.”

Recently, graduate students Kendra Caywood, Danielle Larson, and Casey Bellamy led a “Storytelling at the Tweed” tour for five older women, all who have some level of memory loss. Gilbert Davis Munger’s huge oil on canvas, Niagara Falls Showing the Canadian and American Views, was the first painting on the tour.

Munger's Niagara Falls Oil on Canvas

Gilbert Munger's Niagara Falls Showing the Canadian and American Views: one of four paintings in the "Storytelling at the Tweed" tour.

Caywood and Larson began the discussion by asking open ended questions. In developing the tour, Caywood said that one of their challenges as students was to “formulate questions that have no right or wrong answers, but that spark memories.” Larson asks, if the women were actually standing by the falls, what they would hear. The women offer their thoughts. Caywood asks if anyone has been to Niagara Falls. One woman says she went there on her honeymoon. Observations, memories, and laughter are shared. Everyone contributes to the conversation; even the quietest woman participates.

The group moves through the museum, taking in three more works. When they are done, everyone has spoken, recalled various aspects of their lives. Some recall where they grew up, things they loved to do, places they loved to go. Next the group sits around a table filled with images from magazines and calendars. Caywood, Larson, Bellamy, and Carlson each work with one or two women to help them select images that tell their unique stories. Some of the women need help finding images; yet they are careful to select the right image, the one that truly reflects their memory. Many images are rejected as not being quite right.

When they are done, each woman shares her collage. The quietest woman, the one who at first appeared to be the most withdrawn, tells about growing up on a farm, taking vacations at a lake, taking her children to the State Fair, and loving the flowers that grew in her mother’s garden. One woman who has created the image of a tree using patterned pieces of papers sings,“I Think That I Shall Never See a Poem as Lovely as a Tree.” She receives a round of applause.

Carlson wraps up the activity saying that artists tell stories in their paintings. She points out that the women have created art and told their stories. Carlson encourages the women to take their collages with them and to share them with their families and friends. Before the participants leave, two come over to the facilitators to express how much they enjoyed the activities.

Reviewing the events of the last hour and a half, Caywood said she felt well prepared after many run-throughs prior to getting in front of a tour group. Larson noted that it “was different than I thought it would be, there was a lot more reminiscing.” Bellamy, who had led a tour for a group of individuals with traumatic brain injury, liked working with a different population. With a group of individuals with traumatic brain injury, facilitators “focus more on emotions and the here and now,” Bellamy said, while with the older women, they could focus more on memories. Carlson points out that these kinds of opportunities give the graduate students the strategies and skills they will need when they are working in the field, supporting people with communication disorders.

Hudec is excited to offer this program. “It’s great to add another dimension to the educational programs at the Tweed. Art is for everyone at any age”, she said. Similar programs exist around the country. However, having graduate students facilitate makes the Tweed’s program special. “It’s a wonderful way to contribute to student learning and allows us to collaborate with other organizations that want to make a difference,” Carlson said.

Esther Gieschen, the Northern Regional Center Director of the Alzheimer’s Association, would like to see the program expand. “We did six pilot sessions last spring [2010], inviting area memory care units to bring groups of their residents. We received a tremendously positive response. We’d like to see this program also utilized by people with mild cognitive impairment or early stage dementia who are living in their own homes,” Gieschen said.

If you know someone who might benefit from a “Storytelling at the Tweed” tour, contact Susan Hudec, education director at the Tweed Museum of Art, at 218-726-8527 or by email at


Written by Kathleen McQuillan-Hofmann,

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UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan,

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