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By Susan Gallacher-Turner
Above, Martha, an artist’s book by Shu-Ju Wang
It all started simply enough. Shu-Ju Wang wanted to find a way to connect with her American mother who suffers from memory loss. As a painter and book artist, she came up with the idea to make art prints with her mother and create a book that connected images and people from the past to the present.
“I used my mom as a model—we would spend two weeks together and make prints, then I would come home and make the book,” Shu-Ju said.
But it didn’t turn out exactly that way. With a grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council and a little help from friends, Shu-Ju was connected with four elder residents from Rose Schnitzer Manor. Together, they would create the prints, then she would create an artist book for each resident. But when Shu-Ju met the first resident, she realized that the concept for the project and the reality of the process were two very different things.
Shu-Ju describes, “At the beginning, I had a very specific idea. I would explain the project to them and we’d go from there. I really had this backwards.” What Shu-Ju realized was that she had to find out what each resident wanted to do, and let the project go from there. But finding each woman’s specific interest was a bit tricky.
“It’s completely different working with someone you don’t know and trust is a real issue when your memory is failing. You spend a lot of time just trying to establish a relationship with them before you can really get any work done. These are women at all different levels of memory loss. The less they’re able to remember, the harder it is to establish a relationship with them.”
But Shu-Ju persisted and, with patience, a little luck, and help from some relatives, she was able to build trust and find out what each woman really wanted to do. The result was four very different, creative and beautiful art books that relate to personal experiences from each of the women’s lives.
Below, the installation at John Wilson Special Collections, with Shu-Ju behind the glass case.
Marion loved watercolors. Every day, Marion walked down to the arts and crafts room to admire a particular watercolor hanging on the wall. Observing this, Shu-Ju suggested doing watercolors. Together, they created Marion’s accordion style artist book, with reproductions of her favorite watercolor landscape scene. “I encouraged her to work on something a little different. She would start but as we worked they morphed into the hills, meadow, trees and sunset sky.” Marion would often talk about the big family picnics from her past. This was a clue to Shu-Ju. “So, one day I asked her if the image she was painting was about the family picnics and she said, ‘oh, maybe it is’. That was really an ‘ah ha’ moment.”
Another resident, Martha, loved bright colors, flowers and writing notes to her family and friends. Shu-Ju designed her book to look like envelopes. “All her prints are inserted in the envelopes. She had her fingernails painted in this bright magenta color so her book cover is printed in that color. Her book is very colorful, with lots of flower images, and words that I found so inspiring about her.”
Esther’s book came closest to Shu-Ju’s original concept for the project. “It was a collection of documents and photographs from her life. Her daughter was really interested in this project, too, so each time they would pick and choose what they wanted to include in her book.” Esther also loved playing mahjong. Shu-Ju designed her book to look like a collection of mahjong tiles featuring a winning hand on one side and Esther’s prints on the other side, all tied together with a blue ribbon and ivory mahjong tile beads.
Sheila was a professional printmaker, in her lifetime, using an etching press to create intaglio prints. For her book, Shu-Ju created a cover in a very soft blue-gray color to mirror the look of a used intaglio print plate to hold her portfolio of handmade prints. Shu-Ju says, “She was far along in her memory loss and quite often I had trouble understanding what she was trying to tell me. But in her printmaking and her artwork, she made complete sense. She could talk about value, color, and composition.”
Today, Sheila is still a dedicated art maker. According to Shu-Ju, “Every time I go there, she’s doing collage or sculptures from whatever she can get her hands on. Candy wrappers. Blister packs. Bubble wrap. She built these wonderful sculptures from Styrofoam blocks.”
Four different women in four different stages of memory loss found that their creativity connects them to their family, their favorite pastimes, and their lives both then and now.
This connection of past to present was what Shu-Ju had in mind with project title, “Relay/Replay”. “It was an opportunity for the seniors to ‘relay’ or talk about those moments in their life and ‘replay’ was the opportunity for them to go through their lives again.”
Does relaying their memories into art books help them replay and remember events and people? Shu-Ju doesn’t know but she says, “There’s still a great deal of capacity in people to create.” She also knows they had fun and some, like Marion, got a chance to learn something new.
In addition to producing 20 artist books for each senior, they were given 7 and 13 are part of a rotating exhibit, Shu-Ju had a wooden screen made to hold prints and printing plates from each book. The screens are installed at the manor giving the seniors another way to remember their experience.
Shu-Ju explains, “It’s very rare in an exhibit situation that you get to interact with artist books. I wanted the books to be shown in a way that the seniors could see them easily. I had the idea to make room dividers, like shoji screens. I put the prints from the books in the screens but not in consecutive order. I wanted it to be like a treasure hunt for them. They are installed here at the manor.”
Shu-Ju wants to send collections of the books to medical research libraries specializing in memory loss. Her hope is they will help researchers understand, while memory may be lost, creativity isn’t. She also plans to continue working with seniors producing artist books with her Relay Replay Press.
Below, Shu-Ju and one of the room divider screens installed at Rose Schnitzer Manor.
To see more of Shu-Ju’s work, go to www.fingerstothebone.com.
To hear a podcast of this interview, go to www.infopods.org.