Taylor Vander Well (See Through Stories)

I heard about Taylor's project from a friend of mine and I had to learn more about it. She's combining art with medicine to create a beautiful hybrid of holistic creativity. Taylor's focus is on dementia and those suffering from it, but take note: her project doesn't paint them as victims.

You'll see the term "art therapy" mentioned a few times throughout this piece. I know it sounds self-explanatory, but I asked Taylor to explain it for me. She says that it's similar to any other mental health professional, except that they incorporate art into the process. It's been found to work well with children or the elderly who may not be able to easily verbalize what they're thinking or feeling. Cool, right?

Read my feature after the jump.

Tell me briefly what instigated you to start this project called See Through Stories.

In college, I worked as a nurse's aide in a dementia unit and I loved working there. I became fascinated by dementia and wondered how I could use my art to tap into memory. I wanted to somehow enhance my patient's quality of life through art.

I moved to Edinburgh for grad school and for my master's thesis, I wrote about how art organizations could become more dementia-friendly in their practices, through program development and even things like environmental changes to the buildings. While all of those things were great and very necessary, I wanted to find a way for me to personally connect with dementia patients on an individual level. I had studied art therapy and I wondered if I could use my studies to connect with them.

I found myself beginning to take an interest in something that was really a global issue - a ticking time bomb, in many ways. 60% of third world populations are elderly and largely cases of dementia within that group go diagnosed. While overseas, I noticed so much awareness of dementia and many initiatives in place to combat it. Much more than here in the U.S.! Maybe that has to do with scope? The U.K. is a much smaller country than the U.S. (Laughing) When I came to the U.S, I felt inspired to connect with these individuals and that was how this idea came about. 

How does it feel to be utilizing your art for something so substantial? 

It's very fulfilling! During my art therapy course, I did a summer internship in Uganda, spending time with women and children who had either been abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army or affected by their actions. It was very intense and although it was a great experience, it made me realize I didn't want to be an art therapist, per se. 

Throughout my undergrad studies, I realized that while I loved making art, I was even more passionate about supporting other artists. I have a natural interest in other people and their stories and I also enjoy bringing people together as much as I can. This made me realize I wanted to go into the management side of things. I thought that maybe I'd start a center that supported artists and their work - I never expected dementia to come into play. (Laughing)

But when I look back on my life, I realize that I always worked second jobs at hospitals or care centers and I've always had an interest in mental health, too. So there's been this consistent interaction between the arts and health care throughout my life.

Your site documents the stories of dementia patients in a really beautiful way. Tell me about how you feel going into an interview.

I always feel really nervous, but the moment I sit down I think I want to do this forever!  I feel really natural when I'm listening to their stories. And each person has been really different!

The first person I featured was so hopeful and optimistic. She had a great sense of humor and talked and talked for hours. We've actually kept in touch, I had lunch with her recently!

Another couple I featured was very different. The wife had been diagnosed very young, at around forty-eight. Leaving that conversation I felt heavy, I would say they were definitely in a different mood and mindset than the first person. It's interesting to get a glimpse into everyone's experience because although there are a lot of common symptoms, it manifests itself differently in different people. I think that the act of documenting the individual experience is very important to me.

What are practical ways we can help elderly people feel seen and heard? 

Recently I heard about some universities giving student's free housing within nursing homes. I thought that was such a good idea!

Honestly, I think it starts with spending time with the elderly who are already around. We all have grandparents or elderly people in our lives and I think that's a great place to start. I keep meaning to sit down with my own grandparents and record their stories because I want to have a record of what they lived through.I know many people plan to do that sort of thing, but never get around to it. Maybe it's too difficult or emotional for some? That's where I'd love to step in!

Maybe sit down to interview their loved one, take some pictures, and then present the family with a little package about them. I'd love to make that into a career somehow. Everyone has a story, but not everyone has the time to sit down and document it, you know? I think I could help.

Thanks for reading! You can check out Taylor's project here