Janet Cheatham Bell was accustomed to living alone. Her 83 years hang lightly on her face, which she attributes to the fact of her independence. Before the pandemic, Bell had anchored her life with social routines: exercise at the Y four times a week, three book groups, a massage every Saturday, frequent visits with her three granddaughters. Within that routine, she wrote. She has published two memoirs and two collections of essays. In the Seventies and Eighties, she was an ethnic-studies consultant for the Indiana Department of Education and then for a textbook company before devoting herself to writing. When quarantine began, Bell thought that she might get more work done. But without activities to organize her time and mark the passing days, her attention drifted. She called it the “pandemic haze.”
Her daughter-in-law signed her up for a project an artist friend, Erika Chong Shuch, had mentioned on Facebook. Bell would have three conversations over Zoom with an artist that Shuch and her two collaborators would choose—like a blind date—and then the artist would make something for her. Bell was paired with the playwright Lauren Gunderson.
They met once over Zoom for a get-to-know-you session. Still, their second Zoom meeting began awkwardly. It had been Bell’s birthday the day before, and the tension of the lost rituals of a birthday in quarantine hung over Bell’s recounting of the day. Her grandchildren had wanted to hug her. Gunderson, animated from the first moment, leaned toward the computer’s camera even as Bell leaned back, holding her arms crossed in front of her. Gunderson wore pink-framed glasses; a thick stripe of pink in her hair set off her dimpled cheeks. Seen through her computer’s camera, Bell held herself with a reserve that cracked only when she laughed. So Gunderson, relaxed, told Bell how grandchildren had been hugging their grandparents through plastic wrap, breathing through snorkels. Bell chuckled, but her body remained still. As the conversation went on, her triangular dangling earrings, subtle against her tight gray-white twists, began to sway as her enthusiasm for the subjects Gunderson brought up grew. Within five minutes, Bell’s arms uncrossed. Now she inclined toward the camera too.
Over their hour together, Gunderson asked Bell questions—what sort of music she liked, whether she enjoyed musicals, what was on her bucket list—and Bell responded with stories. The women talked about Ida B. Wells and women across history, the license that Hollywood productions take with biopics and Bell’s parents’ movement in the Great Migration from Tennessee to the Midwest. Gunderson is America’s most produced playwright; one of her specialties is reimagining historical women and popular female figures of literature—she has written plays about mathematician Ada Lovelace; America’s first congresswoman, Jeannette Rankin; and a Christmas play centering on Pride & Prejudice’s bookish middle sister Mary. Gunderson and Bell moved on to talking about Bell’s grandchildren again. Photos of her family—Bell’s son is the comic and television host W. Kamau Bell—stood on the bookshelf just behind her.
In the trading of information and anecdotes, the session lifted from a recognizable form—an interview—into something else. The two women were not friends chatting, nor were they strangers talking toward an end—problem-solving or consensus-making. Instead, Gunderson probed for inspiration. She appeared to want to find something, and for Bell to help her to find it. There was warmth, but also an open-ended acquisitiveness at work in their banter.
“You should write a monologue for Ida and I can write your monologue,” Gunderson said, laughing a bit, before the women signed off their Zoom session.
Across the country and the world, 31 pairs of artists and elders had begun to meet in the same rubric: via Zoom, FaceTime or old-fashioned phone line, three times or more, with creative collaboration as the end goal. This wasn’t just about “doing good”—pairing lonely seniors with artists to while away the time. Gunderson and Bell were supposed to create something together. At the end of their third meeting, Gunderson would have to choose a project to make and give to Bell, as a kind of capstone on their time together—art, in this context, is understood not as something to be collected or sold but as something simpler and much rarer: a “gift.”
These pairings were the quarantine iteration of a project that Shuch and her collaborators Rowena Richie and Ryan Tacata had run for three years. Their social-practice art collective, called “For You,” creates bespoke performance works primarily in the Bay Area. Or it did before quarantine. During the initial coronavirus lockdown, they realized that their work would have to change. The three began to function almost as what they called a “dating service,” matching artists with isolated elders.
I’d learned about For You in May 2020 through a friend at an arts organization. I had been unable to muster enough enthusiasm to “attend” the many online exhibits that were circulating around the internet, but I missed art intensely—the immediacy with which it could pull me out of my own thoughts and feelings and impulses—and I wondered what conceptual artists were making and presenting in response to the confines of quarantine. My friend sent me to Shuch, who had begun to set up artists with elders a few weeks earlier.
Gunderson and Bell were among the first pairs. By the time Gunderson had decided what she would give Bell, the stay-at-home order had just lifted. And as it did, the work of “Artists & Elders: First Response,” as the For You trio called this new project, took on life-or-death stakes. Headlines blared of COVID’s sweeping death counts in assisted-living communities and nursing homes, where the elderly live in groups. Meanwhile, worries emerged about the effects the lockdown would have on seniors, who are already prone to depression and loneliness, as experts warned of the deadliness of isolation for those who lived alone or those whose families could no longer visit. Whether they would survive the virus appeared to depend on their ability to remain apart from others.
At the start of a global pandemic of unknown duration, what the elderly truly needed was science, not art: better epidemiological understanding of the disease, a vaccine. Amid such stakes, art as activism seemed urgent insofar as it could convince an elder to stay home, but incidental as art. How could Gunderson make Bell, a woman of a different race, separated from her by decades of experience, feel seen? And even if she succeeded, would her project—or any of them, really—appear, to someone from the outside, more like art or charity?
Shuch, Richie and Tacata started For You in 2017. All are contemporary artists with a background in performance: Shuch works as a choreographer, Richie was trained as a dancer, Tacata is a professor of performance and a conceptual artist. From the beginning, For You has operated on the premise that a work of art is not a commodity but a gift—and not just some abstract gift for posterity, but something to be enjoyed by a specific person. In For You’s practice, the gift is generally some kind of performance, but also the relationships that emerge from being tossed into a moment of intimacy and specificity with total strangers.
At times the gift has been a single orchestrated experience for one person. They’ve also arranged large spectacles that look more clearly like performance art. For the opening of the Momentary, the contemporary art satellite of the Walton family art museum Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas, For You presented what they called “a ceremony dedicated to you and your firsts” for the community. Shuch, Richie and Tacata invited visitors to share stories about first times—first kisses and sips; groundbreakings, christenings, inaugurations and more—over the course of three small events. Afterward, an interactive performance celebrated the collected stories.
In the last decade or so, as art markets have proven the seemingly limitless monetary value of physical works, institutions have increasingly embraced “social practice.” Apart from investment objects, far away from the hedge-fund billionaires who buy out gallery shows in New York and London, social-practice artists ask, What is the value of art to society? If the work has an answer, it’s that art can reach, tentacle-like, into crevasses of humanity and society, psychology and politics and sensation, that go untouched because no other motive—profit, power, altruism or social approval—exists to get there. Many of these works, like For You, focus on making a specific audience feel uniquely seen or centered.
Some have observed that the rise of social-practice art over the past two decades—majors at art schools have proliferated; exhibits have filled museums in Queens, New Orleans, Houston—has coincided with our increasing reliance on technology. In an era of attenuated relationships mediated by screens, the unpredictable in-person encounters engendered by social-practice works are ever more dear. But during the early weeks of quarantine, when the whole art world seemingly moved online, it became clear to the For You artists that they needed to shift gears. A new idea came to Shuch as she struggled to homeschool her son: home ec. As Shuch started teaching her seven-year-old to sew, he traced his hand in felt and made a pillow. He attached a pocket with a poem, a love note to his grandmother, whom he missed keenly. “My mom just fell in love with this poem,” Shuch said. “Every night she would just put her hand on top of the pillow.”
Shuch posted an idea on her social-media feeds, asking if the artists in her circle might be interested in creating a bespoke gift for an elderly person. They were. So she asked again for suggestions of older people who lived alone. In this first flush, artist volunteers included Gunderson and Bell and also a Guggenheim fellow, a Tony nominee and fifty-odd other artists from the performing and visual arts. Participants were scattered around the country and the globe, but that didn’t matter, since the entire world was some degree of locked down. Artists suggested elderly relatives and acquaintances as gift recipients for either themselves or others.
Parameters were set: The elders would be people who were living at home, who were arguably safest from the virus but most vulnerable to isolation. A final gift would be required, as would three meetings and some degree of documentation of process. Artists were to be paid a small stipend. Otherwise, how an artist wanted to go about getting to know an elder—in formal interviews or sporadic improv sessions, over the phone or via Zoom or FaceTime, supplemented by text or email—was up to them.
On the surface, a fine line separates social-practice art from a health-care movement now spreading around the world. In the U.K., doctors routinely prescribe not just medicine or exercise for their patients but participation in social and artistic activities. This practice—known as the “social-prescribing movement”—funnels money to organizations that provide such services. The NHS estimates that nine hundred thousand Britons will be referred to social prescribing by 2023-24. In late 2018, some doctors in Montreal were issued pads of fifty prescriptions for admission to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In the first six months of the pilot program the museum flagged 185 such admissions, including one handwritten note from a doctor whose pad had run out. The faculty and roster of fellows at the dementia-focused Global Brain Health Institute are peppered with performers, artists and writers (Richie among them). The Milwaukee-based gerontologist, theater artist and professor Anne Basting was awarded a MacArthur fellowship in 2016 for her work on dementia—including TimeSlips, the nonprofit she founded that offers training for dementia caregivers in implementing tactics from the world of theater and improv in elder care. She’s spearheaded improvisational theater projects at care facilities, along the lines of 2019’s I Won’t Grow Up, an interactive production of Peter Pan in twelve rural nursing homes in Kentucky.
The stakes to adopt such changes are high, Basting told me. Long before the coronavirus pandemic, two recent AARP studies found that one in three Americans over the age of 45 report being lonely, and that social isolation among older adults is associated with about $6.7 billion of extra Medicare spending annually. Two 2017 meta-analyses established that increased social connection was associated with a halved risk of an early death; conversely, isolation and loneliness were as deadly as obesity. Basting explained that the customary metaphor for the dynamics of elder care consists of an empty and a full vessel. The caregiver pours resources into the “empty” elder. But the caregiver, then, is drained. Dementia caregivers, in particular, are about twice as likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for clinical depression. Creativity—what Basting calls “asking beautiful questions”—disrupts that narrative, moving from bingo or balloon toss, anemic versions of pastimes that can fill the hours until the next meal or bedtime, to a model in which both parties can gain something new.
Through March, April and May, I thought about creativity and elder care daily. My 71-year-old mother-in-law had suffered from debilitating, rapidly progressing dementia for about a year. In the first month of quarantine, my husband, our infant son and I visited her three times a week at the window of her assisted-living home, where she had recently moved onto the memory-care floor, and watched as what we had known as her “good days” and “bad days” compressed into one slow, sad decline. The fashionable photographer, voracious reader, physical therapist and extravagant gardener she had been only three years before disappeared completely. She circled one hand in the air repetitively. We told her that our baby, Robinson, was growing so fast, and she repeated, “Growing so fast, growing so fast, Patrick is growing so fast.”
Six weeks into quarantine, she didn’t understand why we were still behind glass. Our visits grew shorter because they were so difficult. Talking had, since the dementia set in, been the least productive thing to do with her. Now it was all we had. We couldn’t take her for a walk, or lay a blanket down on her floor to watch the baby crawling around, or sit with her for a meal, as we used to. A twenty-minute visit dragged; how much was there to narrate to someone who increasingly could not respond, when absolutely nothing of our own day-to-day life changed in quarantine?
When we used to be able to visit freely, Robinson was a teeny-tiny celebrity on the memory-care floor. As we passed other residents by, my mother-in-law would wave gaily. Another woman asked every ten or so minutes how old my son was. In the common room, aides and residents alike would coo over his new face. Patrick’s mother would glow in the attention. For her, visits from the baby meant time not only with her grandson but with a more independent, openly loved version of herself.
Two months of quarantine had Janet Cheatham Bell thoroughly “bummed out.” At first, Bell had hoped that Gunderson might write a monologue about her own life, something that she could perform for her family from a safe distance. She had pushed her creative boundaries since she’d moved to San Francisco two years earlier—taking a modern dance class, signing up for a solo performance workshop. She was excited to do something in this vein again.
What Bell received instead was a ten-minute video setting out a manifesto of sorts. This is how to write a play, Gunderson told her, in an instructive video tailored to Bell’s specific life experiences and perspectives. To an outsider, the video crackled with the potential energy of the stories Gunderson wanted Bell to write. Then—beyond the purview of her For You gift—Gunderson commissioned Bell to script her own play. She had long been considering who should tell what story and felt certain that she, a white woman, should not write Ida B. Wells’s story or even Janet Cheatham Bell’s story. She had decided a few weeks into quarantine to split up a sizable Mellon Foundation grant she received with the Marin Theater Company to commission plays from about a dozen racially diverse “early-career” playwrights, many of whose work, in the wake of COVID, had been canceled. Now Gunderson actively looked for another elderly, early-career writer to join Bell on a roster of grantees from whom she commissioned a play for five hundred dollars. Working with Bell, Gunderson told me, “made me think more about giving, and what gifts are, and what artistic giving is.”
The video and the script commission transformed Bell’s continuing days of quarantine. For the rest of the summer she awoke with ideas and sat down to write. Gunderson had seen Bell not as old and vulnerable, isolated and shut away, but as a person with something urgent and important to say—so urgent, so important, that her physical safety was necessary to ensure her ability to say it. The shape of the four walls around her, the tone of staying home, the texture of the time alone changed. The haze was gone.
Other artists and elders in the program reported a similar jolt of energy. Bell and Gunderson had been among the first pairs to exchange a gift. As I spoke with others, commonalities emerged. Artists were happy to experience a new sense of discovery or spark of connection. This was a welcome intellectual and empathic challenge, something novel in a time of winnowing opportunities and dim prospects for extended relationships and artistic inspiration. Some said that they were thankful to be of service. All reported that they looked forward to sessions with their elders, to trying to figure out what sort of gift they deserved. Elders, for their part, were grateful to be approached on the terms of their experience and expertise, or what they had to offer, rather than family’s concerns about their specific needs.
The pairs reflected astonishing geographic and artistic diversity, a huge range of backgrounds and experiences. Participants lived in California, Massachusetts, Texas, New York, Mexico City, Pennsylvania, Tokyo, Barcelona. Elders included activists, Holocaust survivors, Broadway stars, a forty-year veteran of the United Nations, a woman who had worked as a graphic designer in the film-title industry in the 1950s and another who had spent her early years in an internment camp for Japanese Americans. Their stories spanned the decades their ages implied and an astonishing imaginative breadth, too.
This wide range was reflected back in the work of the artists they’d partnered with. A song, excavated from an elder’s fading memory, played over the phone by an artist and his friend to the housebound elder. A website presenting an 87-year-old UN officer and singer’s scattered awards, papers, recordings and articles written about him, collating them in one place where his far-flung family—and others—could see and appreciate them. A book of poems compiled from a month of improv sessions conducted over Zoom. A video of a performance piece, a woman carrying a crucifix through an empty baseball field and an eerie abandoned warehouse in Marfa, Texas, wearing a lavish, bright, papier-mâché costume. Another song, now composed collaboratively. And on and on, a cornucopia of inventive gifts, some of which were recognizable as artworks—the performance piece, songs, poems—and others that probed the edges of what’s traditionally accepted as art.
As I sat and watched the videos on the For You website, my reactions rose and fell with the tenor of each. “Dear Herman, today clouds raced east like they had a plane to catch, like they had somewhere to be,” one artist read in a voiceover atop a video he’d made, gray cumulus clouds sped up above a New York skyline, and I felt the overlay of two emotions I knew separately: the fear and loneliness of quarantine superimposed on the meditative, cool melancholy of a brisk late winter day in the city. As an elder opened a box to find her favorite childhood doll recreated out of recycled goods, in tribute to her commitment to environmentalism, I noted how much time had passed since I last made anyone a gift with my own hands. In another video, of a book of poems an artist daughter made for her mother, I cried along with the mother who stretched her arms out to pull the binder across the six feet between them, thinking about my own infant son one day seeing me as clearly as this daughter appeared to view her mother. The gifts themselves were almost an afterthought, a talisman of relationships forged or deepened in a strange time in a known place: at home.
As the quarantine wore on, life continued moving as if just parallel to normal. Eventually my husband and I were able to visit my mother-in-law in person again. We brought the baby to see her in the garden. One day, when my husband and I had exhausted all of the bright, one-sided conversation we could muster, he stood and took three steps over to the wall of herbs growing alongside where we sat. “Here, mom,” Patrick said as he held a sprig of mint in front of her nose. “Does that smell good?” Her face changed a little. I saw her trying to remember the name. “Don’t worry about what it’s called,” he said. “You used to have a garden. It was so beautiful.” He picked a few leaves of basil and held them to her. “How about this?” She wrinkled her nose and pulled back. “Okay, okay,” he said, laughing. “Let’s get back to the mint.” Patrick put the sprig in her hand gently and wrapped her fingers around it. It was the best interaction we’d had with her in a month. I thought of Basting’s words about beautiful questions rooted in the sensory moment, not memories of a shared history. For a minute, my mother-in-law was a fragment of the formidable gardener she used to be.
I also thought of something Shuch had told me. In our first conversation, she had referred to some of the first performances of For You as a way to offer people a chance to be, as she put it, “seen for how they want to be seen rather than for how they are seen in their normal, everyday lives.” On some level I had expected the gifts to be the equivalent of a crafted Mother’s Day card, but few ended up schmaltzy or amateurish. No longer the objects of concern, the elders embraced the experience as much as they did their gifts. “I didn’t think that she wanted to talk as long as we did, but it was way over an hour each time,” 75-year-old Jean Abe told me, “and I got to know a lot about her too.” “There’s no ageism going on, so that’s pleasant,” said 85-year-old Kay Brown, whose weekly Zoom dates with performance artist El Beh lasted months beyond their three sessions as they composed a song together. “We have [a] common goal in mind all the time and that’s great.”
For You didn’t begin with a focus on the aging population. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that what Shuch had mentioned in our very first conversation—For You’s mission to help people be “seen for how they want to be seen”—applies uniquely to the aging and elderly. As South African anthropologist and writer Ceridwen Dovey observed in the New Yorker, “we tend to feel younger as we get older.” Our perceptions of self never quite catch up to our calendar age. When else in our lives, other than in illness, are so many humans so unrecognizable to ourselves?
Throughout the autumn, programs began cropping up around the world echoing the creative, personalized approach to elder care that For You’s Artists & Elders project pioneered. In Milwaukee, Basting’s TimeSlips launched a “Tele-Stories” program, pairing a paid artist with ten elders for a series of half-hour storytelling sessions. A Massachusetts nonprofit launched a pilot program of social prescribing to reimburse local arts nonprofits as care providers. In the U.K., the government funded the National Academy for Social Prescribing with a £5 million grant for programs that “help tackle loneliness, improve wellbeing and recovery from COVID-19.”
The needs of elders are frequently the subject of heated debate: no less in health insurance forums and op-ed pages than among family, around kitchen tables and across phone lines late at night. An important difference, I thought, between that and For You was that Shuch, Richie and Tacata leveraged the neediness of both elders and artists equally.
In the pandemic, artists have needed funds, but also stimulation and connection. They have had little access to the in-person arts on which creators and performers thrive. By now, some museums have flung open their doors, while others wait; many theaters hesitantly plan for September shows. Cherished institutions strain to adapt. Online programming has offered temporary sustenance, though it just as often has fallen flat. No matter what sort of art I have looked at recently, no matter which online venue, I have not been able to silence the vague anxiety: What will the future of art presentation look like, and how will it differ from the past? For You didn’t give me an answer, but it did push the question into the background as I was immersed in the cacophony of gifts it had called forth. Other, much bigger issues floated to the surface: about life and aging, death and control, equity and experience, and the purpose of creativity within the time through which we are all constantly moving together, apart. A gift for me, too.
Even as time rolled on—as Shuch began to think about how to encapsulate “Artists & Elders: First Response” in something that could somehow be presented as part of a future spectacle after the pandemic—the work remained rooted in the constraints of today.
“We’re not making this project because ‘in the ideal world we’d be in the theater,’” Shuch had said last May. “This is the ideal world.”
Art credit: Glenn Stultz, Self-portrait, acrylic on canvas, 2020; Glenn Stultz, Daly City, acrylic on canvas, 2020.
Glenn Stultz was paired with curator Deirdre Visser through For You’s Artists & Elders projects. Visser curated Stultz’s first exhibition, Out My Window, at Spike’s Coffees and Teas in San Francisco (March 2021).