November 7, 2012
A few minutes late, I tiptoe into an alcove of the Phillips Collection, in Washington, D.C., where Brooke Rosenblatt is leading a discussion with ten museum visitors about Ernest Lawson’s oil painting Approaching Storm.
“Where do you think this scene takes place?” asks Rosenblatt. “Have you ever been to a place that looks like this?” She calls on audience members, who are all seated in folding chairs. The landscape of rolling hills and a stream lined with cattails seems to remind each person of a different place—Scotland, North Carolina, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, France, Switzerland. One gentleman in the front row is convinced it is upstate New York. “He obviously liked it,” he says of the artist’s relationship to the place. “It was lovingly painted.”
“Let’s step inside the picture,” says Rosenblatt. “What do you hear, smell, touch and taste?”
A man, sitting just in front of me, says he hears fish splashing in the brook. A woman in attendance hears distant thunder. And, another participant says she feels a precipitous temperature drop.
For about a year, the Phillips Collection and Iona’s Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Wellness and Arts Center, also in the nation’s capital, have partnered to offer an arts program for older adults with memory loss, Parkinson’s disease, the lingering effects of stroke and other chronic conditions. Rosenblatt, an education specialist at the Phillips, meets with participants, sometimes their family and caregivers as well, on a monthly basis; one month the group will visit the museum, and the next month Rosenblatt will bring reproductions of artworks to Iona, so that others who are less mobile can join in the conversation.
In the morning, the group discusses two to three paintings. Rosenblatt poses questions that might help individuals connect to the works on a personal level. A particular painting, for instance, may jog an old memory. Then, in the afternoon, there is an art therapy component. Jackie McGeehan, an art therapist at Iona’s Wellness and Arts Center, brings the participants together in her studio to do some art making of their own.
Throughout November, National Arts and Health Month, the Phillips Collection is displaying some of this art, created at Iona, in an exhibition called “Creative Aging.” The artworks are grouped together by monthly session and shown alongside a panel featuring the famous piece from the Phillips Collection that inspired them and a description of the themes discussed with museum educators and explored more fully in art therapy.
On the day I observe, Rosenblatt and other museum educators move from Lawson’s Approaching Storm to the next gallery, where John Frederick Peto’s painting Old Time Card Rack hangs. The still life, of sorts, shows letters, envelopes, tickets and a portrait of Abraham Lincoln tucked into a card rack, much like a bulletin board. Those attending discern that the objects must have held some meaning for the owner of the rack.
Based on the direction that the conversation takes, McGeehan chooses an art project. “Most of it comes down to my understanding of each of these people and what I think will be most beneficial emotionally. What is going to allow them to reach a little deeper?” she says, in a phone call a few days later. “A theme that I felt would be a good component to focus on was the idea of collecting and holding onto material goods or objects that remind us of moments in our lives.” In the art therapy studio, members of the program created “time stamps,” or art pieces that they can later look back on to remember this moment. Some people chose to respond to music, she said. Others created art or wrote letters to themselves.
Visitors to the exhibition will see how Pablo Picasso’s The Blue Room and Raoul Dufy’s Chateau and Horses inspired the program’s artists to convey mood through color, and Morris Louis’ Seal encouraged them to explore the themes of movement and direction. After studying George Luks’ Otis Skinner as Colonel Philippe Bridau, they created self portraits in the art therapy studio. On another occasion, participants examined John Sloan’s Clown Making Up, talked about “masking” oneself and then sculpted plaster masks.
“In recent years, a wealth of scientific research has shown the powerful effects that interaction with the arts has on health, healing and rehabilitation,” reports the Phillips Collection, in a press release. “For individuals with Alzheimer’s and related dementia in particular, studies point to the ways art can ease the devastating symptoms and lessen the anxiety, agitation and apathy associated with the disease.”
McGeehan has also seen firsthand how art can help the aging population communicate their emotions in a non-verbal way. “Art is a very safe, very contained avenue for them to express themselves,” she says. “People that have suffered a stroke may have an expressive aphasia where they are unable to communicate clearly or have trouble finding or saying words, so it has given them an additional tool to help them be heard and understood by other people.”
In her experience, McGeehan finds that art therapy helps people who are declining physically and cognitively and becoming more dependent on other people. “They are given a material that they can mold, shape and really transform from nothing to something beautiful,” she says. “That sense of control and mastery over the process for many people is very valuable.”
Rosenblatt wraps up her discussion of Lawson’s Approaching Storm with an interesting question. “If you painted this, what would you call it?” she asks. Without hesitation, one man says, “House in Sunlight.” Others agree. Although clouds are rolling into the scene, there appears to be a bright patch surrounding a single white house, and they’ve fixed their gazes on it.
If that isn’t a sign that art therapy helps with positive thinking, I’m not sure what is.
October 19, 2012
For a few consecutive years, as a kid, I put the board game Mouse Trap on my Christmas wish list. Hasbro’s commercials from the early 1990s made the game look outrageously fun. First, you build an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine, with a crane, a crooked staircase and an elevated bath tub. Then, once that is pieced together and in working condition, you use the contraption to trap your opponents’ miniature mice game pieces under a descending plastic cage.
I can hear the ad’s catchy jingle now: “Just turn the crank, and snap the plant, and boot the marble right down the chute, now watch it roll and hit the pole, and knock the ball in the rub-a-dub tub, which hits the man into the pan. The trap is set, here comes the net! Mouse trap, I guarantee, it’s the craziest trap you’ll ever see.”
Unfortunately (for me), Santa thought the game had “too many parts.” He was somehow convinced that my brother and I would misplace enough of the pieces to render the game unplayable.
Where was Mark Perez when I needed him?
Perez, a general contractor in San Francisco, believes the game of Mouse Trap is an important educational tool. He and a troupe of performers actually tour the country with a life-sized version of the board game, using its many levers, pulleys, gears, wheels, counter weights, screws and incline planes to teach audiences about Newtonian physics.
“I used to play the game a lot as a kid,” says Perez, when I catch the nomadic carnival man on the phone. “I used to put several of the games together and just kind of hack the game, not even knowing what I was doing. Then, that interest just sort of made its way into adulthood.”
In 1995, Perez began to tinker. At the outset, the self-described “maker” thought of his giant board game as a large-scale art installation. He scrapped his initial attempt a year in but returned to the project in 1998, this time renting a workspace in a reclaimed boat-building barn on San Francisco Bay. “I worked every day for eight hours and came home and worked for two to four hours more in my shop fabricating the Mouse Trap,” he says.
The crane alone took two years to construct. But by 2005, Perez had 2o sculptures, weighing a total of 25 tons, that when interconnected created a completely recognizable—and, more importantly, working—model of the popular board game.
With the “Life Size Mousetrap” complete, Perez and his motley crew of carnival-type performers took to the road, staging at times up to six shows a day at museums, science centers and festivals around the country. Prior to his construction career, Perez did some production work for bands and nightclubs in San Francisco, so he has a flair for the dramatic. He stars as the enthusiastic ringleader, and the show includes clowns, tap-dancing mice and a one-woman band (she sings and plays the drums and accordion) who sets the whole thing to music. This past summer at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, the goal of the Mouse Trap was not to catch a mouse (or a tap-dancing mouse, for that matter) but to instead drop a two-ton safe onto a car.
“I find that kids and adults both like it,” says Perez. “And when you get 400 people cheering for what you are doing, it becomes something that you want to do. I knew that I was on to something.”
At first, Perez was in it for the spectacle. Oh, and for bragging rights too. “I am the first person in the world who has done it on this scale,” he says. But, over time, he has incorporated science lessons into the act. “It sort of turned me into a physics person,” he says.
As the Rube Goldberg machine is set in motion, Perez and the other performers explain certain terms and laws of physics. For instance, when a spring that is cranked backwards is released and pulls on a cable, which then swings a hammer to hit a boot, the cast discusses potential and kinetic energy. There are also fulcrum points at play in the system. Then, when a bowling ball rolls down stairs, Perez points out that the staircase is an example of an incline plane. There are also opportune moments to talk about gravity, the workings of a screw and the mechanical advantage one can achieve by rigging several pulleys together. Esmerelda Strange, the one-woman band I mentioned earlier, has even released an album, How to Defy Gravity with 6 Simple Machines, with the rollicking explainers she sings during the show.
The whole endeavor is a real labor of love. The show’s cast doubles as its crew, assembling and disassembling the Mouse Trap at each site. Perez’s wife is a dancing mouse. She does all the costuming and a lot of the choreography—and drives a forklift too. Then, there are the production costs. “Just traveling with a semi-trailer costs $3 a mile. I bought a crew bus and that bus costs at least $1 a mile,” says Perez, who is working on getting funding through grants. “Then, you tack on all the extraordinary amount of insurances you need for these events. It just gets crazy.”
But the efforts and expenses are worth it, says Perez, if the Mouse Trap can provide real-life, unplugged encounters with scientific principles.
“You can go online and see all of these simple machines, but actually seeing it in person, watching a compressed coil spring release its energy to push a push rod to make a bowling ball roll down an incline plane, when you experience it and hear the clanging of the metal, it is different,” says Perez. “We make it fun.”