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Bay Area Artists Reach Across Social Distance to Connect with Elders

Wednesday, May 27, 2020   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Lauren Spencer


Are you an artist or elder that wants to play?


As I read Erika Chong Shuch’s Facebook post, the question pierces the subtle fog that has settled around me in the past month. Truth be told, I haven’t wanted to “play” since witnessing the cascade of theatre shutdowns prompted by COVID-19. My grief for my community, my focus on staying healthy, and my longing for connection have superseded any creative desires. However, the proposed endeavor piques my interest:


The idea is that the duo (artist +elder) would meet several times (phone or video conference) and the artist would create a bespoke piece of art for the elder and/ or the elder could create for the artist. The art work would be inspired by the exchange between the duo, and the work is created in the spirit of gift giving. 


In a moment when we are being encouraged to keep distance between us, the act of intentionally building connection with a stranger, especially one belonging to the most vulnerable population, feels both subversive and deeply necessary. I send a message to Shuch: Yes, I want to play.


Clockwise from top right: Shuch, Aaron Landsmann, Richie, and Tacata. 


Two weeks later, I log on to Zoom to meet with Shuch, Ryan Tacata, and Rowena Richie, the multidisciplinary powerhouses behind For You,. For the project’s first iteration in 2017, the trio created a performance for twelve strangers inspired by the year the artists spent getting to know them. Since then, they have continued to explore art as gift giving and to interrogate the artist/audience relationship, the latest iteration being For You: Artists & Elders


Richie’s work with dementia patients (she is a Senior Atlantic Fellow at UCSF’s Global Brain Health Institute) provided the seed of inspiration for Artists & Elders. Shuch, Tacata, and Richie had envisioned an intersection of art and care where connecting elders with artists could also provide relief for the elders’ caregivers. As COVID-19 curbed the possibilities of in-person contact, the team imagined how the project might be adapted to a digital platform. The Facebook open call was a first step in developing that possibility. 


My Zoom meeting with the team is part of their rigorous matchmaking process. I’m peppered with gentle questions about my artistic disciplines, my relationship to gift giving, why I’m drawn to the project. It is through these initial conversations with each artist and elder that the For You, team determines who to pair with whom. A Yente-like energy courses through them as they describe the thrill of making a perfect match, from commissioning a photographer to collaborate with an elder who paints landscapes or connecting a queer DJ in Rhode Island with a music-loving elder who has been a longstanding staple at the Stud.


“We’re less casting directors and more fabulous dinner hosts at a party,” Tacata quips. “It’s based on what we pick up on in conversation, people’s aesthetic choices, word choices, thinking about their background, their interests. And we do a lot of good old-fashioned internet stalking,” he adds, flashing a devilish grin. 


The following day, I receive an email connecting me with my match: 75-year-old, Berkeley resident, Jean Abe. The project guidelines require Jean and I to have at least three different conversations from which I will source the inspiration for the gift and documentation of the process for the project’s website. Even in the first call with Jean, the conversation flows effortlessly. Her ebullience delights me as does her insistence on pleasure. 

Lauren Spencer and Jean Abe. 


“I’m a hedonist,” she proudly declares and proceeds to describe, in technicolor detail, an unforgettable six hour meal she once enjoyed in Italy. On another call, she breathlessly recounts discovering the most stunning rose on her afternoon walk. Darker themes emerge as well, such as her experiences of racism as a first generation Japanese-American growing up in Orinda, feeling ashamed of her handmade clothes as a child, and her battles with food and body image. I am struck by the vulnerability that imbues our conversations.


Shuch attributes this swift intimacy to the form. “The act of engaging in an artistic process brings people together in a way that normal conversation doesn’t. It gives permission for a kind of question-asking that we don’t usually have,” she says. 


Dancer and choreographer, Rachael Dichter, centered this unbridled “question-asking” in her collaboration with elders Mary Hones and Beth Mcleod. The three women had been working together on a project at Counterpulse that was postponed due to Covid-19. Dichter saw Artists & Elders as an opportunity to deepen their bond. 


“I proposed that we engage in a series of conversations, inspired by prompts I would curate with the intention of getting to know one another. We would consider those conversations as performances...the performance is being intimate with each other.” 


For Mary Hone, framing intimacy as a performance changed her relationship to it. “I began to think about the opportunities for intimacy I may have missed, my part in withholding things, keeping myself contained in my relationships. I see now there’s a lot of possibility to have better, more intimate relationships on my end.”


As I work with Jean, I consider Hone’s revelation and note that in this process, we are all surmounting that which separates us, whether it be our own patterns of behavior, geographical distance, pandemic-forged limitations, or the social invisibility that comes with aging. Many of the elders the For You, team has interviewed reference the latter, saying quarantine doesn’t feel much different from the isolation of their everyday lives. 


Mrs. Pansy Ann Wilmott and Indiia Wilmott. Photo courtesy For You,.


Actor Indiia Wilmott used Artists & Elders as an opportunity to interrupt that isolation for her 90-year-old grandmother, Pansy, who is quarantining in Virginia without internet or a computer. Wilmott conducted a series of conversations with her grandmother about how she was coping and then edited the material into a curated podcast entitled “Conversations in Isolation.”


Wilmott’s project is an attempt to reciprocate the care her grandmother had always provided for others. “I’ve always seen her give to other people,” Wilmott says, “At the same time, I feel that there are things that she holds back of herself. I wanted to let her know the things she says are important, to give the gift of her voice back to her. Every piece of this was guided by making her feel that her experience and her life matter.” 


Similarly, Jean has become the compass of my process and it occurs to me that, for a field consumed by the presence of the audience (or lack thereof), we rarely position the audience at the center of our making. The beauty of Artists & Elders is that the performance is not only for them but uniquely of them. 


After Wilmott plays the podcast over the landline, her grandmother retrieves a journal a friend gifted her a while back. She wants to begin writing. “My favorite part [of this] was getting to know myself and express myself the way I want to,” she says, “There’s so much we all need to tell about our experiences in this world.” 


This need to tell of our experiences has always been the driving force behind performance and as many artists grapple with how to engage during these times, Tacata offers that our truest belonging might exist at this crossroads of “telling” and “care.”


“When we step back and ask what is the nature of care right now, this is what we can do,” Tacata says, “I’m not a medical doctor or a therapist, I’m an artist. We respond by taking care of other people’s stories and by responding to [those stories].”


One of my bedroom walls has become a shrine to Jean’s stories, papered with notes from our conversations. I find myself returning to her vivid recollection of the beloved baby doll she received for Christmas one year, the details of its pink dress and bonnet, the mysterious box it arrived in. I note the wistfulness in her voice as she explains that she’s passed the doll down to a niece who she’s not sure has kept it.


I decide the piece of art I make for Jean will be a recreation of her childhood doll.


Paying homage to her focus on waste reduction, I’d build the doll from recycled items. In a nod to her love of movies, I’d adorn the doll’s gift box with a popcorn kernel mosaic. This work lies squarely outside my professional artistic disciplines, but while imposter syndrome occasionally looms, I mostly feel liberated.


“The center of the practice is pulling people through the tunnel of an experience and at the end they come out with a renewed sense of possibility,” Shuch says of the project. I realize this applies not only to my audience of one but also to myself…The process invites me to expand and reimagine how I define my artistic practice, my theatre, my human connections. 


On a sunny spring day, I stroll down Jean’s Berkeley street, masked and sanitized, gift in hand. She greets me with a wide smile and a box of homemade oatmeal cookies. Her eyes light up as she opens the box.


“This gift makes me feel like you saw something in me that translated to my inner child, my little girl feeling,” she tells me, “Even though I am 75 with white hair and arthritis, I never lost that feeling. Somehow you honed in on that and the little baby doll is the symbol of it all.” 


Jean emails photos of the doll to friends and does a “show and tell” with her family over Zoom. Sharing the experience seems to compound her joy, which brings me joy in return. I reflect on this as I upload my process documentation. The team hopes that documentation will serve as a call to action, enabling the project to extend beyond the limited number of artists they currently have the funding to commission and inspire others to reach out to people in their community. 


When I think of those who will witness Jean recounting our journey or imagine the Wilmott descendants reading the pages of Pansy’s journal, I marvel that these people are unforeseen audience members by proxy and that the impact and reach of any piece of art may have less to do with the size of your audience and more to do with how deeply you affect them. 


In my last conversation with Jean, she tells me that she hopes the next time we can see each other she can give me a hug. I say, “I hope so too. For truly, this has been as much of a gift for me as it has been for you.”


Visit http://www.foryou.productions/artistsandelders to learn more.


Lauren Spencer is an actor, activist, and teaching artist based in San Francisco.