CHARLOTTE – Art and music are among the first things humans learn as infants. With age, it is one of the last things they lose.
But Gary Heeseman was never an artist. The former dentist always enjoyed puzzles, Sudoku, golf and other games, but until he started going to The Ivey Memory Wellness Day Center in SouthPark, his artistic talent was untapped.
Like many other members of The Ivey, Heeseman suffers from dementia. After three and a half years of being a member, staff considers him their star painter.
His wife of 58 years and current caretaker, Betty Heeseman, was shocked when she first saw her husband’s talent.
“As a dentist, you have to have the art ability to be able to do crowns and decide what will look best in people’s mouths, but as far as painting, I don’t know that the man ever took a bucket of paint and painted the wall,” Betty said. “Now, he just loves it and he’s so prolific. It’s almost like having a kindergarten child bring you home a new picture every day. When it first started, it was just with sheets of paper, but now he’s doing canvases. He has just amazed us.”
Betty said Gary’s paintings hang on the walls of her home, as well as her children and grandchildren’s homes. He has painted a variety of things for his family, including the mountains, Parisian scenes and college mascots. Betty said he takes inspiration from pictures and scenes he sees and develops his artistic interpretation. He recently painted a portrait of Betty.
She said Gary’s dementia is mild most of the time but can be severe. As his caretaker, she suffers the brunt of his occasional irritability that comes with dementia. The Ivey aims to give caretakers like Betty a break from some of the challenges that come with being a caretaker. Betty said it has been a blessing not only for Gary but also for herself.
The Ivey puts a focus on the arts because it gives dementia patients a sense of accomplishment and a creative outlet. The center offers studio art classes as well as art appreciation and music programs. The Ivey also partners with local and national museums on art programs.
“For people with dementia, so often, their lives are kind of marginalized and they feel like they can’t do anything anymore,” Chief Operating Officer Janet LeClair said. “Here, they’re creating and producing something tangible, which gives them a sense of purpose and a sense of worth.”
LeClair has seen Heeseman grow in the art therapy program.
“This has been so important to him in terms of focus every day and what he’s doing is amazing. It’s just neat for people who may not have even known that they had this talent,” LeClair said. “Many of our members, in the case of men, have been pretty senior people who never had time for recreational things because they were so busy working. For them to have this outlet and see the talent they have, it’s very nice.”
Each patient’s artistic journey is personalized by art therapist Lela Kometiani, who has been at The Ivey for five years. Kometiani said she includes different types of art in the program, including clay, painting and drawing.
Art helps with patients’ memory, Kometiani said, by using simple, geometric shapes and familiar alphabetic letters for them to remember. Additionally, art provides a tangible object for those with dementia to look back at and enjoy again.
“There is memory loss in the patients with dementia, but the imagination and creativity is still there,” Kometiani said. “It really helps them to feel like a person.”
Kometiani recognized Gary’s talent when she saw his drawings and encouraged him to begin painting, in which he excelled. Though he was shy when he started, Kometiani said Gary now works well independently and has blossomed in the program. Betty said Gary always strives to learn more from Kometiani and loves going to The Ivey. Kometiani calls Gary “Mr. Leonardo.”
His talent prompted Kometiani to get in contact with the Town of Matthews to display Gary’s artwork in an exhibit at Matthews Town Hall.
“It’s important to see their work because there are stories behind the work,” Kometiani said. “It’s good for the community. They don’t really understand the details behind this illness. There is life beyond this illness and you can be part of society.”
Want to learn more?
Since the coronavirus outbreak, The Ivey has temporarily suspended services and will reevaluate the situation every two weeks. Staff members are available to answer questions about The Ivey’s services via phone or email. Call 704-909-2070 or visit www.theivey.com for details.