An Artist on a Mission: Rosemarie Oakman

Oakman displays two of the molds she prepared from sculptures created by the elderly.  They will be filled with molten iron and made into tiles to be given back to the nursing home residents and their families.

Oakman displays two of the molds she prepared from sculptures created by the elderly. The molds have since been filled with molten iron and made into tiles to be given back to the nursing home residents and their families.

Over the past month, Franconia has transformed its open-air studio laboratory into a temporary foundry to house our Hot Metal Program. We’ve welcomed 4 new interns and an Intern Coordinator, 2 lead artists and 6 iron artists into our midst, all in preparation for our Hot Metal pours. Last week we hosted the Community Collaboration Hot Metal Pour, which you can read more about here, and yesterday the furnaces were ablaze yet again for the Resident Artists Hot Metal Pour, featuring the work of more than 15 artists from around the world. For some of our artists, the pour provides the opportunity to try a whole new way of working. For others, like Rosemarie Oakman, it’s a chance to delve more deeply into a body of work they’ve been developing for years. Yesterday we had the pleasure of sitting down with Rose to find out more about her project, called Alzheimer’s Glass and Iron. Scroll down to read all the details, and stop by tomorrow to talk to her yourself.


Tell me a little bit about your project.

I founded and directed a project called Alzheimer’s Glass and Iron, which is a cross-generational arts program. We are certified by the Alzheimer’s Association and their Memories in the Making watercolor workshop to go into nursing homes and facilitate watercolor workshops as well as sculpture workshops with the elderly who have Alzheimer’s and dementia. So since I’ve been here at Franconia we’ve been painting and sculpting the lakes in this region. I conducted the program with over 35 elderly individuals in the Twin Cities and the nearby St. Croix Valley.  They all created different bodies of water that have memories connected to them, and the clay sculptures were cast in iron at the Community Collaboration Hot Metal Pour on August 1.

What happens to the sculptures after you cast them?

I give the sculptures a colorful patina and then give them back to the elderly. One of the really upsetting parts of the program is that the elderly really have no recollection of making the sculptures because they’re dealing with memory loss. So we’ve added their names to the bottom of the lakes and that gives it a more personal touch. They are on round plates so it’s a very familiar touch of someone holding this round object because it resembles a dish which each of these people has held in their hands.

How did you get started with this project?

The final products, painted and ready to be returned to the workshop participants.

The final products, painted and ready to be returned to the workshop participants.

I started this program when I was at Alfred University. I always had a passion for working with the elderly and I minored in geriatric. While I was there I started a club that would go out and do art activities with the elderly. There were a lot of people that were mixed in with the cognitively normal functioning residents who had Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. And confusing little things would happen. I would ask someone how old they were and they would say “oh I’m 15” and I’d be sitting across from someone who is in their 80’s. That led me to investigating Alzheimer’s a little more. I became very sympathetic towards the disease and what it’s doing to the individual, as well as their families. This project is a way of using art to comfort both the individual and their families because the object cast in iron is something that will live on for as long as the family wants to hold onto it.

Will you talk a little about the pieces your burying in the ground?

While I’ve been at Franconia I’ve been doing more than just the program called “One of 10,000 Lakes.” I’ve also been collecting favorite memories from each of the participants at the six different assisted living facilities I have worked with, as well as from participants in Franconia’s Community Collaboration Hot Metal Pour and Franconia artists and staff. So all of these memories will be preserved in beeswax and then buried in the ground here at Franconia Sculpture Park. Metaphorically those memories will never be lost or forgotten; they’ll always be here at Franconia.

What’s your favorite part of the project?

My favorite part of the project by far is the outreach with the elderly. You see a really dramatic change from the beginning of the workshops to the end of the workshops, with people’s moods lightening up. They become much more imaginative, and are much more cognitively engaged, which is really nice to see because in nursing homes and assisted living facilities people aren’t always receiving one-on-one interaction. This is one-on-one attention is specifically focused on them and their memories in a very positive light, in a way that they are able to reminisce.  In the workshops, many times people are reminiscing about their favorite memories and then that goes off on a tangent. No matter where they are within their memory loss they do pick out their favorite memories. It’s very sweet to see the artwork they create. Last week in one of the workshops, one of the women was incredibly proud of her painting of the lake and she screamed out “I can’t wait to show this to my mom and dad,” so in her mind she’s a young child but there is still that enthusiasm and go-get-em point of view about her artwork, so that’s really nice to see. And just how the arts can affect someone who is cognitively impaired in such an impactful way.

What is the relationship between the materials glass and iron with people with Alzheimer’s?

A woman makes a watercolor painting based off a photo of a Mark Di Suvero sculpture currently installed at Franconia.

A woman makes a watercolor painting based off a photo of a Mark di Suvero sculpture currently on exhibition at Franconia.

When I started the program, I was creating the watercolor paintings using only iron colored oxides. And we started off just using iron which is a really dominant mineral in this earth. It’s everywhere; it’s in our bodies and running through our blood. It’s one media that kind of connects us all. So we were using iron oxides and then creating the sculptures based in iron and that was the artistic view for this program. But there are always kinks involved, so as we were creating paintings with just red and yellow and black iron oxide with people who were suffering from memory loss and already confused, and they were like “I can’t paint the sky yellow and I don’t want to paint the grass red.”  We were of course catering to them and their needs so we introduced a watercolor brand from Germany that’s recommended by the Alzheimer’s Association. In doing that we wanted to add that bright rich color to our sculptures so we added glass. Two of my close friends and colleagues from college are glass blowers so they took over the glass portion of the program.

Why did you propose this project to Franconia and what did the experience of working here offer you?

Since I was in college my professor Coral Lambert had always spoken very highly of Franconia and the different artist opportunities they offer. As a result, I’ve been looking into Franconia’s programs for a while. Since I’ve gotten here it’s been really motivating to work around so many sculptors working at such an ambitious scale. It’s also been really interesting to see the cultural differences. This is my first time doing the project in the Midwest. A lot of people here are of Swedish and Norwegian descent, and I’ve worked with a lot of Swedish and Norwegian people in the nursing homes. It’s been really interesting hearing their earliest memories of coming to America and settling in Minnesota. It’s been really rewarding to have a different demographic of people to work with. It’s been a great community of people since I’ve been here. A lot of people, especially the iron artists, are really helpful which is always a really great group to come into.

What’s the most important lesson that this opportunity at Franconia has taught you?

Since I’ve been at Franconia, I’ve been expanding the program in more ways. Meaning not limiting it to just sculpture but opening it up to all artistic media. So that would mean bringing in people who do performance and screenprinters, and painters and photographers and having them all create art with the elderly and make their own artwork based off of the elderly’s paintings. That’s something I’ve been thinking more about and will be in the next stages of planning soon. It’s interesting to come to a sculpture park and think “I guess we should break away from sculpture,” but I’ve just been thinking a lot about taking those next steps since being here.

How does your experience compare to other residencies you’ve completed?

Oakman creating the molds by packing sand around the clay lakes created by alzheimer's patients at local care facilities.

Oakman (right) creating the molds by packing sand around the clay lakes created by Alzheimer’s patients at local care facilities.

I was an intern at Sloss Furnaces National Historic Monument in Birmingham, Alabama. And I was also a fellowship artist and residency director for the Alzheimer’s Glass and Iron Program at Salem Art Works. So this has been interesting because it’s one of the first times I’ve been solo working on the project since 2013 when I was down in Birmingham. I’m glad to say I’ve still got it! It’s definitely much easier to go into a workshop with multiple people who have dementia and have a team of people with you. That way if someone is having an episode you can sit with them and ask one of the other instructors to go get the water or whatever it may be that you need for the next activity. Whereas here I’ve really been on my feet during these workshops, working with three people at a time who need your attention and positive affirmation. So that has been one of my bigger challenges here, and in the same vein it has been so rewarding to do that and be making that impact in the nursing home and among these people and their daily lives.

What are you plans after leaving Franconia?

After leaving Franconia I’m going to start looking into graduate school within arts administration. I would love to continue the Alzheimer’s Glass and Iron Project, which I think will become Alzheimer’s Artworks for as long as Alzheimer’s is still not cured.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I’d like to say thank you to Franconia Sculpture Park for their staff as well as artist community for being so inspiring and so helpful throughout my month here at Franconia.

Where can we find out more?

The project is very active on social media, and people can visit www.alzglassandiron.com. On Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, we use the hashtag #alzglassandiron.

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