Sage and Time

By John Guido

Paulette Audette was a determined woman. For 30 years, after being welcomed by L’Arche Sudbury from an institution, she was a community builder, worked three jobs, and volunteered in a soup kitchen. Slowed down by health issues, she didn’t want to work anymore, yet was determined to do something meaningful in retirement. My friend Paulette died in October 2018, but not before helping launch the Sage and Time Art Project.

Of course, Paulette was not alone. Audrey, Eddy, and others are also aging, facing increasing support needs and the lack of options for meaningful activities. For many people, the intersection of aging and disabilities is a lonely, unfulfilling place. But the L’Arche Sudbury seniors have friends and allies who heard their concerns. They began to dream of a project built around making art that could create a better path forward.

Sage and Time is a great name for this project. There’s the wisdom that comes with age. And the title also suggests the value of herbs to bring flavour to the meals we share, zest to our life together. These words remind me of Paulette, Audrey, Eddy and other senior friends. Native elders tell us that sage is burnt to purify, heal, and remind us of the Creator who moves through everything. This also is what this project is about.

Designing a project to make a difference

Responding to the changing needs and dreams of its members is a key part of the L’Arche mission. In fact, this capacity is so well developed that it doesn’t leave much room for the opposite strength of long-range planning for impact. But today, there is a culture shift happening in L’Arche as we increasingly balance our gift for responding to people with the practices of strategic change.

With the Sage and Time Art Project, L’Arche Sudbury has become a leader of this person-centred approach to strategic planning. In order to receive a New Horizons for Seniors grant (from Employment and Social Development Canada), the project needed to “be led or inspired by seniors” and meet program objectives such as senior volunteering, mentoring, and social inclusion. They’ve accomplished these goals and many more.

L’Arche Sudbury designed a year-long art project where each piece fit together to deliver intended outcomes with greater impact. Each month:

  • Artists (mostly seniors, professionals or passionate amateurs) with a wealth of knowledge and life experience facilitated a group session using different media such as watercolours, paper mache, and songwriting;
  • Each piece explored a different theme such as health, Franco-Ontarian and Indigenous cultures, remembrance, welcome, and abuse and reconciliation;
  • The groups were intergenerational with people of all ages from small children to elders and included people with and without disabilities;
  • Different groups attended from all walks of life from kindergarteners to Special Olympians to members of the Irish Regiment introducing the seniors to many new people (250 artists over the course of the year);
  • Each artist explored their individual creative expression while contributing to the creation of one, large group piece;
  • More than 60 senior and other volunteers helped out doing various jobs such as making soup and cleaning brushes;
  • The group ate lunch together, being nourished by food and fellowship as well as the creative act of making art together;
  • Each collective artwork was photographed and printed by a professional photographer then framed; and
  • Each print was displayed in different community spaces in the wider community: a seniors’ centre, a school, a church, a cultural centre, a public health unit, a hospice, the offices of the mayor, MPP and MP, a military base, and the airport (all together, seen by an estimated 10,000 people).

In March, the prints were collected and an exhibition (including the original pieces) was held at a community centre near Science North overlooking beautiful Ramsey Lake. A gala evening and art sale drew a diverse crowd of friends old and new to appreciate the art and be inspired, to celebrate the success of the project, and to raise funds to make it sustainable.

Making art builds bridges

From the beginning, this project was about social connections. Since Audrey loves children, a project with a grade school was essential. Mrs. Beaton (Kelly), the teacher, said, “There’s an openness with children and also with a lot of people with intellectual disabilities. You don’t have to break down any walls. Immediately, everybody was engaged in making art. Each person had their own piece and they came together.” As soon as the children saw a figure in a wheelchair, they knew it was for Audrey and were eager to see her make it her own.

At another session, high school students took part. One 15-year old was intrigued by one of the seniors. She asked, “Is it okay if I talk to Eddy?” Soon they were chatting about their shared love of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Manitoulin Island. They were making art but also making a connection over the differences in age and abilities between them. Pat Montpetit, a senior volunteer and long-term L’Arche board member, put it this way, “It was a great leveller – everyone was on the same level of ability. And we were having a good time together.”

Insights from some of the art facilitators

Artist Ruth Reid who facilitated “Butterflies,” said, “For me, the most exciting aspect was seeing how the art brought people together. They would be saying, “What colour are you using?” And then they’d laugh and say, “My leaf is purple.” And someone would say, “There are no purple trees!” It started this wonderful conversation, and fun and connection and relationships. There’s no wrong or right way to do art…it’s just an expression of your heart.”

Kim Mullin who facilitated “Family Day,” said, “Each person painted themselves as a flower, each unique but part of the big wonderful L’Arche garden. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from; everyone has a place, everyone is welcome. The members have a joy and lack of self-consciousness. I always try to get artists to let go. With L’Arche there is no need for that. It’s freedom from the get-go. When people live in an environment of acceptance and non-judgment, it lets them be more open and creative.”

Carolyn Ludgate who facilitated “Words of Wisdom,” wrote, “One of the intentions of the Sage and Time Art Project is to invite members of the Sudbury community to participate… The Senior Sudbury Rising Stars performed a skit named “Positive Attitude” which was a delightful way to precede a group discussion… I asked them to think about what gave them Joy and what advice they may give to others… The pieces were quite beautiful, and the words were inspiring.”

Andrew Lowe who facilitated the “Sage and Time Song,” said, “Everything flowed. We were all in the right space together so we could all work together to write the lyrics… Remarkably, the ideas were coming thick and fast… We came away after a four-hour workshop with the basic idea of the song and the chorus. The most important thing was everybody contributed. I knew we could get something, but I wasn’t expecting it to be that good.”

Seniors making a difference

In her letter of congratulations, the Hon Filomena Tassi, Minister of Seniors, wrote, “Through the New Horizons for Seniors Program, the Government of Canada is committed to helping seniors benefit from and contribute to the quality of life in their communities through active living and participation in social activities. This is why I am so proud that the Government of Canada supports organizations like L’Arche Sudbury. Because when seniors are invited to participate in all aspects of society, everybody benefits.”

New Horizons for Seniors is a good fit for L’Arche because we know the power of friendship and belonging, welcoming the gifts of difference, and including all people as valued contributors. We need to create spaces and build partnerships that bring people who are different together in order for this vision to take root for more people. Darrell Marsh, the program director who organized the Sage and Time Art Project, summed it up this way, “It demonstrates the power in everyone working together whatever their age or capability. There’s a lot of power in that.”


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