Artist mixes spirituality into classes for seniors at Catholic Eldercare

| Julie Pfitzinger | April 14, 2011 | 0 Comments
Chillon Leach

Chillon Leach weaves her faith into her art, which includes painting on canvas and liturgical stoles and funeral palls. Photo by Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Intertwining her work as an artist with her faith life has always come naturally to Chillon (pronounced sha-lon) Leach, and it is that perspective that she brings to her role as both art teacher and gentle encourager at Catholic Eldercare in northeast Minneapolis.

For the past six years, Leach has conducted art classes for senior residents and adult day program participants; many of those who participate in her classes have Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

“In the class, I combine art and spirituality, but at a basic level. There is always a prayer component and then there is an opportunity to just play in art, which is really the way I approach my own religious art work,” said Leach, who is Lutheran and attends Immanuel Lutheran Church in St. Paul, where she also has an artist’s studio.

She has discovered that “the elders are very open to trying new things,” which is why creating art has the potential to be such a positive experience for them.

“I always tell them that everything they do is good in God’s eyes and I think that takes the pressure off,” she said with a smile. “Creating art is always a leap of faith, no matter what the circumstances.”

Teaching to individuals

There are typically about a dozen participants in one of Leach’s classes — an aide or other staff member is always present as well. Projects vary from week to week (the classes are grouped into four-week sessions) and are always specifically adapted to the level of the participants.

“If we are drawing a stained glass window, for instance, there are some who don’t need me to help them, but for others, I will draw the outline of a window with a cross in the middle,” she said. “The important thing is to just be with them in the present moment, and that is a beautiful place to be.”

Leach typically gives her students Crayola products to use (“I think it reminds them of their childhood,” she said) and never too many color choices, which can have a tendency to overwhelm those with dementia.

Leach recalled one particularly memorable class experience. The session started with a prayer, as all her classes do, and as the class was ending, Leach said they would close with the same prayer. All at once, one of the participants — a patient with dementia — started to perfectly recite “The Lord’s Prayer” as the rest of the group, most also suffering from memory issues, joined in.

“The director and I just looked at one another. In that moment, something very grace-filled took place,” said Leach, adding that she always feels “very nurtured” when spending time with the elders.

Sparking memories

The classes themselves are often filled with conversation, laughter and the sharing of memories, many of which are unexpected.

“I’ve had people in class start singing a hymn and say they wonder where that’s coming from because they haven’t thought of it for years,” said Leach. “There is always this extra layer that happens where they are suddenly struck by extra memories or extra ideas. I really think it is a sign of the Holy Spirit.”

Leach said she would welcome the opportunity to work with residents at other nursing homes or with senior groups at churches because she has observed first-hand “how happy the elders are when they go back to a happier place, but at the same time, they are going forward and creating something new.”

Bringing people together with art and spirituality has become a vocation for Leach, who also offers artist-in-residence series for Christian churches.

“Part of my art ministry is in gratitude for the gift I’ve been given, and the other part is the opportunity to give back with my art,” she said.

Leach recently had an acrylic on canvas series called “Journey with Saint Paul” (based on the life and writings of the saint) on display at St. Paul’s Monastery in Maplewood.

She also creates custom, hand painted funeral palls and liturgical stoles — a red stole honoring the Year of St. Paul was commissioned especially for Father Joseph Johnson, rector at the Cathedral of St. Paul.

To view Leach’s work online, visit http://www.mnartists.org/Chillon_Leach
She can be contacted by e-mail at chillon@chillonleach.com or by phone at (651) 649-1519.

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Category: Spirit of Giving