Published March 11th, 2022 at 12:01 PM
In an expansive Crossroads gallery filling two rooms, deepest wishes of elders are rendered as works of art.
For each of the roughly 50 works displayed in the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, artists Andy Newcom and Marn Jensen sat with elders across the U.S. and had conversations that answered, “What would you wish for the world?”
This exhibit is the first public exhibition of a formerly private collection.
On one wall, “I want to go home” is written in cursive on a yellowing, stained sheet of college-ruled paper pinned to a piece of cardboard.
Across the room in a corner, there is a small gold icon. This artwork features a caregiver named Wilma. The artists met her during a tour of a memory care facility and were struck by her story. So they snapped her photo. Dubbed “Saint Wilma,” that portrait is nestled in a golden, hand-carved early 1800s icon frame.
On another wall, a smattering of vintage photographs are accented with green pushpins, blue twisted wire, red wax dots and pink brushes of paint. The label reads:
“I wish people remembered that, though I may be older and slowing way down, I’ve had a colorful history.” — Patricia, 89, accomplished author, lobbyist, feminist, mother and grandmother.
In the second room a mosaic of cards from the early 1900s through the 1980s, highlights handwritten letters, flower shop envelopes, 1920s era police citations, and postcards from across the states.
It was a curated collection of eight boxes worth of paper memories. The donor, Nancy, couldn’t throw it away so Newcom took over, dutifully reading each piece before recreating the near wall-sized work.
“I wish I knew how to honor (my family’s) lives, their meaning, their importance to me,” Nancy told them.
By repurposing donated and found material, Newcom and Jensen have interwoven deeply personal wishes of people and created a tangible version of their thoughts. The artists sought to crystalize something most people forget — a wish. To do this, they traveled the nation and just listened to elders. Occupying space in someone’s home or at a long-term care facility takes its emotional toll, as does rehashing those conversations during the creative period.
As Newcom said: “It’s overwhelming but a labor of love. … We also want to communicate that people have value at any point in their life.”
This idea began with Marn Jensen’s father, who had Alzheimer’s disease.
“He was super creative,” Jensen said.
Her family would walk around in nature to find sticks in the shape of wishbones to paint, dubbed “wish sticks,” and pass around, as though giving away permission to make a wish. The result of her collection of wish sticks was a private sculpture for Hallmark.
However, this practice was the catalyst for what would become a larger-scale, public body of work.
Because it stems from such personal experiences, Jensen and Newcom included personal mementos in the show to honor their parents. It’s in the first room, off to a corner in the left – both smaller-scale works.
The artists, who’ve been working together for more than 30 years, said they “feel like we have the same parents.”
Jensen’s homage to her parents focused, in a pair of small white framed works, on the simple pleasures, like a glass of milk and traditions personified in a birthday cake.
Newcom’s homage represented feelings that bubbled up as he watched both parents live through Alzheimer’s.
One work represented he and his father’s shared hobby of fixing things up with a Handy Andy toolbox, juxtaposed with silvery, glitter stars that illustrate his wish – but inability – to fix his father’s disease. The other displayed his mother’s late-in-life habit of folding paper, stapling it, and wrapping in rubber bands and a paperclip. So, he stacked those pieces over her childhood photo.
“I’ll never forget the pain of Alzheimer’s,” he said. “But more than that, I will remember my mom as a loving mom.”
Seeing just how fragile end-of-life care is transformed the way they thought about aging. It also informs “Art of the Wish.” Beyond the initial message was also a clear urge to value aging Americans, the dreams they still have and the stories they tell.
They know well the hardships that come with aging parents and the crash course so many are confronted with, making difficult decisions even more complex. Most people, they shared, aren’t equipped to make informed choices for their loved ones.
So, humanizing American seniors was their way to build a bridge toward empathy.
“That’s the fuel behind all of this, specifically,” Jensen said. “We experienced all of this and even just the simple moments, of seeing so many people over there not being talked to.”
Jensen was jolted by a memory of her mother in hospice. The rental equipment was rolled in, a plastic mattress on a muddy-colored hospital bed, and she couldn’t find anyone to get her mom a glass of water.
“These people should be on feather beds with a lemon squeeze in their fancy water glass,” she said.
These sentiments were further cemented by each of the 200 stories they heard, hands they held and wishes they collected.
Now, it’s a part of their artistic DNA, Jensen said. Their takeaway: Aging elders have desires that they wish more people knew if folks would just sit and listen.
“These wishes and these people, you know, they’re our friends,” Jensen said.
“Our society is … anti-aging. All the messages we get are, that it’s a bad thing,” Newcom added. “We are here to say, it’s not. It does not have to be. We have to change that conversation.”
“Art of the Wish” is on display in the Kansas City Crossroads through May 28, 2022. The exhibit was put together in conjunction with the Center for Practical Bioethics.
Disclosure: The author’s spouse is an employee of the Center for Practical Bioethics.
Vicky Diaz-Camacho covers community affairs for Kansas City PBS.