Sunday Seniors: No Wrong Answers: Responding to Universal Language of Art

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    Artist Alison Palizzolo and Dartmouth College freshman Rachna Shah facilitate a discussion of Palizzolo's paintings "Just Before Sunset" and "Pale Blue Dot" while participants Leslie and and Harry Black look on earlier this month during a session of Perspectives: Looking at Artworks at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. (Chizuko Horiuchi photograph) —Courtesy photograph

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    Artist Alison Palizzolo shows her painting "Just Before Sunset" last month to participants during a session Perspectives: Looking at Artworks at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. (Chizuko Horiuchi photograph) —Courtesy photograph

  • Marianne Barthel, coordinator for the D-H Arts Program, leads the discussion during a session of Perspectives: Looking at Artworks at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.(Robert Santulli photograph) Robert Santulli photograph (top); Chizuko Horiuchi photograph (right)

Valley News Calendar Editor
Published: 9/30/2017 10:00:11 PM
Modified: 9/30/2017 10:00:11 PM

Lebanon — Marianne Barthel held a colorful, abstract painting by artist Alison Palizzolo, whose work is on display at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. She faced the group of about 15 people seated in a semicircle and asked them for their first impressions of the work.

“I would call it Mardi Gras,” Meg Chalmers said.

“Happiness. A big burst of happiness,” Harry Black said.

Palizzolo’s work, Just Before Sunset, was the first piece presented at the September gathering of “Perspectives: Looking at Artworks,” a Dartmouth-Hitchcock Aging Resource Center program for people with memory disorders and their caregivers that was started by Dr. Robert Santulli in 2014.

“No two sets of eyes will perceive color in the same way,” Palizzolo said. “Color is a universal language that anyone can speak.”

Like color, art is also universal and accessible. The program aims to keep people with memory disorders engaged in their communities, to focus on their “preserved abilities,” Santulli said, “rather than things they had trouble with.”

That thing being, of course, memory.

As they face a disease that constantly reminds them of what they’ve lost — the recollections, the details of a life — Perspectives reminds participants of what they still have: the ability to enjoy life, colors and each other, and that the contributions they make are appreciated and valued.

The main point is to get people who have dementia out into the community and involved in activities that focus on them, “where they don’t have to feel like the dunce in the class,” Santulli said. “This works well with people who have cognitive impairments.” They might not remember well, “but they can certainly look at something that’s right in front of them … and they have a whole range of emotional responses and other responses to what they’re looking at.”

Barthel, coordinator of the D-H Arts Program, next held up a painting that contained shades of black and white. “What do you see or think of it?” she asked.

“The moment you turned it over, I thought of a classic photograph of a street with a lot of people on it,” Mike Fanizzi said. Another participant saw New York City, another saw legs and yet another an aerial view of skyscrapers.

“There’s something about what we’re doing that really draws people out,” Santulli said as the discussion swirled around him. People who might not have had an interest in art before their memory disorders began start to develop one.

“It doesn’t require any memory skills whatsoever, so everyone is on equal footing, which I think is such a tremendous benefit for people with memory disorders,” Barthel said. “It’s just about the response, which anyone can do.”

The artists get something out of the experience as well.

“It’s so much fun to see the artist go, ‘Oh, I haven’t thought of my art in that way,’ ” Barthel said.

Santulli started Perspectives after learning about a similar program at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

“I wanted to see if we could create something here at Dartmouth like that,” he said.

The program was first held at the Hood Museum, then the Black Center before settling at DHMC. He involved Dartmouth College students. Two, freshman Rachna Shah and sophomore Emily Luy Tan, facilitated the discussion on two of Palizzolo’s paintings.

Shah led the discussion of the last painting, a large work with a purple background. Immediately there is talk of space, galaxies and stars.

“It’s the big bang,” Fanizzi volunteered.

“I see something different,” Leslie Black said. To her, it’s the deep sea and the creatures that inhabit it.

“The spatter shocked me,” Pat Grove continued.

Lewis McKeon’s reaction is more to the point. “Yowzer,” he commented. Barbara McKeon questioned him further. “What do you like about it?”

“I like the complexity of the whole thing,” he replied. “It’s got so much going on you can’t possibly figure out if you can use it for anything.”

Everyone is able to contribute, because everyone is seeing the works for the first time. There are no right or wrong answers.

The title of the painting is The Pale Blue Dot, which Palizzolo said was inspired by astronomer Carl Sagan, whose 1995 book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, was a sequel to his award-winning television series Cosmos.

“We’re all here together,” she said. “As divided as people are nowadays, there is a reason to come together.”

The interaction of the colors in the painting made Grove reflect on her role as caregiver to Fanizzi, her husband. “I’m seeing changes in his perspectives of color all the time,” she said. When she says something, she needs to think about how he might see it. “Color is so important, we don’t realize how important it is,” she said. “Learn to go with that flow, to investigate, to ask questions.”

It’s hard to imagine life without memory, to have thoughts that — instead of escaping for a moment — seem gone forever. But in this program, none of that seemed to matter.

“We’re always looking for ways to get them to talk to each other,” Santulli said. “This happens there and we encourage it.”

Editor’s note: Perspectives will next meet on Oct. 19, from 10-11:30 a.m., at DHMC. Registration is recommended. For more information, contact the Aging Resource Center at 603-653-3460. Liz Sauchelli can be reached at or 603-727-3221.

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