Art: The Universal Healer

Students in an art class

Imagine being inspired by a beautiful piece of art that is pleasing to the eye or the feeling of a sculpture that you can touch, mold and create with your hands. Think of a melody or musical lyric that moves your soul and elevates your emotions. For many people, art can be transforming. And for those facing health challenges, it is also a powerful remedy.

Central Floridians are lucky to live in close proximity to two museums that graciously work with individuals who have suffered a stroke as well as those suffering from the early stages of memory loss. Art, in its many forms, has been proven a useful therapeutic tool for both emotional and physical ailments.

Brush Strokes and Sculpting
The Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens in Winter Park was created with the belief that art can inspire on numerous levels. After retiring to Winter Park, Albin Polasek, a celebrated American sculptor who was born in the Czech Republic, suffered a debilitating stroke. But he didn’t let it slow his passion for art. Despite his physical battle, from 1950 to 1965, he went on to complete 18 major works including the politically motivated “Victory of Moral Law” (1957), which received worldwide acclaim.

Rachel Frisby, the museum’s curator, has witnessed how much art can transform those who have suffered stroke-related illnesses. She encourages those individuals to persevere with their love of art regardless of their disabilities, just as Polasek had.

“We offer hands-on activities, tailored group tours and welcome special needs groups,” Frisby says. All activities and tours are presented in an informal atmosphere that foster creativity for participants of all ages. “I design the activities from an art therapy perspective and incorporate objectives that are sensitive to their wide range of ability and ages.”

These activities highlight the artwork that Polasek created post-stroke to show participants that life can go on despite the difficulties they are facing. Both stroke survivors and their caregivers can also participate in a docent-led tour through the historic Polasek home. “When they hear Mr. Polasek’s accounts, it resonates strongly with victims affected by stroke,” Frisby says.

After his stroke, Polasek had to re-learn his fine motor skills. “The paintings created during this post-stroke period have a less realistic style and have more emotion than technique. I have often thought that Polasek was painting, not for the sake of creating great artwork, but rather to assist in his stoke recovery,” Frisby says.

Valerie Greene is the founder and CEO of Bcenter, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting stroke survivors and caregivers, and she is a big fan of using art as therapy. “I’m a survivor of stroke for 20 years,” she says. “Art therapy can help treat physical and mental well-being.”

Many individuals have been profoundly moved after their visit to the museum. “The Polasek story seems to strike a chord and leaves people feeling like they are able to reach just a little higher in their own lives,” Frisby says.

Melody and Song
Central Florida Community Arts (CFCArts), a nonprofit musical arts organization in Orlando, recently partnered with Watercrest Senior Living Group to form a choir specifically for those who are experiencing the early stages of memory loss. Individuals with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or other memory impairments, along with their care partners, can join in the fun and enjoy the music. “We want to give people who are experiencing these impairments a safe place to come,” Charlotte Stewart, senior director of member services at CFCArts, says.

The Musical Minds Choir, which began singing together last month, was developed with the knowledge that music has a great ability to help heal. “The benefits are to stimulate the brain and encourage brain health,” Stewart says. “This program can help with connections to music through patterns, tone and melody repetition, conscious or subconscious. Consistency is key to help with memory.”

The program encourages participants to sing or follow along as best they can. Music sheets include a larger font and are structured in a way that individuals don’t have to memorize anything. “The participants and care partners can experience this together,” Stewart says.

Presently, the group is not planning a production, so there is no pressure to perform. However, there may be a holiday performance for family and friends planned in the future.

One of the goals of the choir is for the participants to have an opportunity to connect with their caregivers, each other and their community. “Music has a tremendous impact on people suffering with memory loss,” Christopher S. Shepherd, director of creative program development with Watercrest Senior Living Group, says. “People who cannot speak are able to speak again for a few minutes when they are connected to the music they love.”

When individuals are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, it can be a frightening experience. Music offers an emotional experience that feels good and touches the heart. “My grandmother suffered from memory loss,” Shepherd says. “She couldn’t speak intelligently but she could sit and sing the songs she loved.”

Stewart says, “Using art and its wonderful healing powers is our goal.”


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Written by Lyndsay Fogarty

Lyndsay Fogarty has had many roles at Central Florida Lifestyle, working her way from intern to contributing writer to managing editor. She is a graduate of the University of Central Florida’s Nicholson School of Communication where she earned her degree in journalism. Along the way, she has learned that teamwork and dedication to your craft will get you far, and a positive outlook on the present will get you even farther.

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