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‘A Poem in Our Eyes’ Exhibition Features Poetry by Centre Care Residents

Poems written by residents of Centre Care nursing home’s memory care unit are on display throughout June in the Betsy Rodgers Allen Gallery at Schlow Centre Region Library in State College.

An annual celebration of the nonprofit Ridgelines Language Arts semester-long program of the same name, “A Poem in Our Eyes” highlights the rich intellectual and creative capacities of those living with memory loss. Poems and images will be on display, forming an exhibition that sets verbal and visual art in conversation, honors the imaginations of those living with memory loss and challenges conventional notions of disability.

This show consists of poetry written collaboratively by residents of Centre Care’s memory support neighborhood, Stanton Court, in response to photographs. Teaching artist Robyn Ryzdy, who has led this Ridgelines’ program since 2019, finds that the participants respond best to brightly colored images that include people, animals or familiar scenes. Abstract art and shadowy pictures don’t resonate as well for these storytellers.

“It’s been my pleasure to meet weekly with participants to look at, think about, talk about, and laugh about these and many other images, as well as the memories and feelings they evoke,” Ryzdy said.

During each session, Rydzy encourages her students to respond to the artwork, posing questions such as: What do you see? How does it make you feel? What would you like to do there? What is the weather like in this picture? What happens before, or after?

“As the teaching artist, I let everyone know that we’re here to let our imaginations run loose—there are no right or wrong answers,” Rydzy said. “Whatever people say gets written on a white board for all to see. Although my hand is involved in copying down and lineating the poems, all of the words and titles come directly from participants.”

“Our poetry programs at Centre Care have been running strong for over a decade and were part of the inspiration for creating Ridgelines as a nonprofit,” Abby Minor, Ridgelines founding director, said. “Participants are teachers, mothers, fathers, seamstresses, mowers of cemeteries, fishermen and women, dancers and church-goers, storytellers and makers of poems.”

A primary goal of  “A Poem in Our Eyes” is to provide rich intellectual experiences for those living with memory loss and increase mental and emotional well-being. The weekly sessions also foster social inclusion and provide a vehicle for communicating with others in a creative way. Each session offers participants an experience that allows them to know that their words and imaginings are valued, and provides the satisfaction of making something new. 

“As a librarian who strives to engage our community through meaningful, lifelong learning opportunities, I’m honored to partner with Ridgelines every June for ‘A Poem in Our Eyes,’” Maria Burchill, head of Adult Services at Schlow, said. “This show, and the program it represents, are outstanding community-building achievements. The efforts of the poet and artist teachers not only unite our loved ones with their creativity, but the program also allows them to express their memories and innermost feelings. A masterfully led event, the results are displayed for public enjoyment and meditation.”

For people looking to engage those living with memory loss through images, pictures, artworks or other creative processes, these resources have been valuable to “A Poem in Our Eyes”:

  • TimeSlips (www.timeslips.org) offers simple tools and training on bringing creativity into memory care.
  • Pictures to Share (picturestoshare.co.uk) is a publisher of books designed to engage people with memory loss.
  • Creativity and Communication in Persons with Dementia, by Claire Craig & John Killick (2012), outlines many kinds of creative projects designed for those living with memory loss. 

“A Poem in Our Eyes” and other Ridgelines programs are made possible by support from individuals, local businesses and granting agencies. Ridgelines’ 2023 programs are supported in part by Centre Foundation, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and a Challenge America award from the National Endowment for the Arts.