The Art of Healing
The Mobile Art Program, started by staff member Theresa Zelazny, provides a creative outlet for those facing Alzheimer’s or other mental challenges.
By Lisa Thiegs
Last spring, Grace Wasson ’14 looked forward to her art class each Wednesday. She wasn’t there to learn techniques or refine her own skills; instead, she watched Dorothy Mayne paint images that reflected her life growing up in the country. Mayne is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and had never thought of herself as an artist. It was through Theresa Zelazny, founder of the nonprofit organization Mobile Art Program and an office specialist in the School of Behavioral and Social Sciences, that Mayne discovered her passion for art.
Zelazny and her volunteers introduced a small group of senior citizens participating in the Austin Groups for the Elderly of Central Texas Early Memory Loss Support Program at Austin’s WellMed to several art mediums. They created collages, painted with watercolors and made ceramics. As Wasson sat by Mayne’s side, helping her with supplies and talking with her, she watched how the art transformed her.
“At the beginning, Dorothy told me she was out of her element and didn’t feel comfortable exploring new mediums of art,” Wasson says. “She turned out to be an amazing painter, and she really enjoyed it. At the end of the six weeks, we had an art show, and she was really happy with what she did.”
Wasson, a Psychology major and Art minor, had researched the benefits of art therapy for those with eating disorders but wasn’t aware of the benefits of art therapy for Alzheimer’s patients until she volunteered with the Mobile Art Program.
“When you have Alzheimer’s, learning new material and creating art can help you keep your memory longer,” Wasson says. “The art was teaching them a new way of expressing themselves, while making a more lasting memory.”
While the attendees of the memory-loss program were expressing themselves on canvas, Wasson saw how they also became more expressive in their social interactions. The small group of participants fit around one table, and as they worked, they talked about why they had chosen to paint certain things.
“It wasn’t just about the art,” Wasson says. “It was social, and the art evoked other things.”
Zelazny has been witnessing the positive outcomes of art for years. When her mother battled cancer, Zelazny encouraged her to paint. “When she painted, it helped her relax and allowed her to focus on something positive,” she says. “During her long hospital stays, I would hang her artwork in her room to inspire her to get better. Plus, it would give the healthcare workers a subject of conversation beyond her illness.”
After her mother passed away from colon cancer, Zelazny finished a Studio Art degree from the University of Texas–Austin. After a few years working in the art world, she saw the impact of art on the elderly, the disabled and those with mental challenges. She wanted to bring art to those populations. She founded the Mobile Art Program in 2007, and she’s been bringing together different generations in a creative and nurturing environment ever since.
“The program started in nursing homes, but we are currently focusing our efforts on working with people who have dementia, Alzheimer’s and mental challenges,” says Zelazny. “Now we provide art activities for six different respite programs and two day programs that serve all ages of adults and a variety of disabilities.”
The Mobile Art Program, part of the National Guild for Community Arts Education, delivers its art programs free of charge, thanks to funding from grants. Two St. Edward’s University faculty members, Delia Paskos and Emma Lou Linn, are on the organization’s board of directors.
Wasson has seen just how valuable those services are, and she plans to volunteer again in the coming months. “I am hoping to be an art therapist,” Wasson says. “I’d always envisioned myself working with children, but the Mobile Art Program broadened my horizons. Now I’m considering working with Alzheimer’s patients.”