Bear Necessities

By: Lisa Hoffman, curator of education on April 22nd, 2020

My neighborhood – also home to other Woodson Art Museum staff – is engaged in a “Teddy Bear Hunt.” Inspired by Michael Rosen’s children’s book We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, neighbors display child-friendly items for viewing by children during walks. A home to teachers features uplifting messages in sidewalk chalk. Another home posts a new riddle each day. Shannon Pueschner, Woodson Art Museum curator of exhibitions, installed a five-foot, three-dimensional cardboard bear on her roof. A plush Elmo perches on my second-floor balcony.

Neighbors unite in a mission to entertain children during these stay-at-home, beige-and-tan early days of spring. What a simple and powerful effort to bring creativity, spontaneity, and interest to a stroll. While current events are so big and disorienting, small gestures can bring clarity.

During the disruption of order, routine, and social interaction – keys to good mental health – these days are challenging. Countless articles, tips, and videos suggest ways to manage the isolation and, as a Harvard Business Review article describes, the associated anticipatory grief.

What about, though, individuals and care partners further isolated by dementia and memory-loss? Community-based programs such as the Woodson Art Museum’s SPARK! program are on hiatus. Guidance from the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services recommends restricting nursing home visitors, communal dining, and group activities, during the battle against Covid-19.

Among helpful responses, MacArthur “Genius” Fellow Anne Basting released free resources from her non-profit TimeSlips Creative Storytelling website. Anne Basting, with support from Bader Philanthropies, was influential in helping to launch the Woodson Art Museum’s SPARK! program during which individuals with memory loss are invited to participate with a friend, family member, or care partner in art experiences. During the Museum’s SPARK! programs, artworks in the galleries spark conversation among participants, who then engage in a hands-on art activity.

When I describe the SPARK! program to interested participants or volunteers, I emphasize the creativity and improvisation that infuses the social interactions. Recall and remembrance are not the focus. Rather, joy-filled, engaging, “in-the-moment” experiences centered on what Anne Basting refers to as “beautiful questions” inspire participants to think a little differently – with no right or wrong answers. Each Woodson Art Museum SPARK! program incorporates an abbreviated TimeSlips creative storytelling session.

In a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, Anne said, “We know creativity is calming. You get into a state of flow psychologically speaking . . . you don’t register the passing of time, your stress is reduced.”

Louise Peterson, Chickadee (2/18), 2005, bronze

Here’s an example to try.

Embrace creativity and imagine a story about this Great Dane and its passenger. What should we name the dog? This bird, a chickadee, is named for the song it sings . . . chick-a-dee-dee. Think about the sound a dog makes. Where is the dog . . . in a house, outside, in a field, on a mountain, or at an amusement park? Is the dog alone or is it with other dogs, animals, or people? From where did the bird appear? Is the dog surprised by the bird or did the dog invite the bird to ride along? Are the bird and dog friends? Are they sharing a conversation? What might they be saying to each other?

Creativity is endless and boundless . . . near or at social distances. Visit the Woodson Art Museum website and YouTube channel, social media channels, and the Woodson app to ignite creativity.

PS: SPARK! participants shared a lively rendition of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt during a 2018 program. What “beautiful questions” might emanate from this book’s refrain? “We’re going on a bear hunt. We’re going to catch a big one. What a beautiful day! We’re not scared.”

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