George and Tamara Frankel at Masks, Revelations and Selfhood, the spring forum of Jewish Seniors Alliance, in partnership with the Louis Brier Home and Hospital, which was held May 26 at the Peretz Centre. (photo from JSA)
Since August 2018, Louis Brier Home and Hospital residents have explored themes of personhood and creative expression, crafting masks, narratives and original dances with expressive arts therapist Calla Power and choreographer Lee Kwidzinski. The whole process was filmed by Jay Fox for a documentary.
Power, Kwidzinski and Fox, as well as Louis Brier resident Jennifer Young, who participated in the project, shared their experiences with guests at Masks, Revelations and Selfhood, the spring forum of Jewish Seniors Alliance, in partnership with the Louis Brier. The forum was held May 26 at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture.
The four presenters brought with them many of the masks that were made by the Louis Brier residents, which they placed on tables near the audience. Everyone could examine them up close and try them on. This allowed people to experience the changes one feels when masked, hidden from others.
JSA president Ken Levitt welcomed everyone and spoke about JSA’s motto, “Seniors Stronger Together,” noting that JSA’s free peer support programs – which require the financial support of the community to continue – exemplify the power of older adults assisting other older adults. He then introduced Power, who has been working with residents at the Louis Brier for about five years.
The Masks Project lasted seven months, culminating in a program that includes masks, stories, poems, drama and dance. In her summary of the history of masks, Power said the oldest masks, dating from the Neolithic period, were found near Jerusalem several years ago. She explained that masks are used in many cultures as part of religious and/or spiritual ceremonies. In a slide presentation, she showcased masks from different cultures, including African, Indian and local indigenous cultures. Frequently, she said, those wearing the masks would represent “the gods” and be a conduit for messages from above.
Ginger Lerner, Louis Brier recreation therapist, had approached Power about making masks for Purim, obtaining a donation from the estate of Frank and Rosie Nelson that facilitated the project. Power did some research on Purim and discovered that many of the characters were masked; for example, Esther, who masked her origins, and Vashti, who refused to be unmasked. As residents engaged with the project, they discussed such topics as what parts of ourselves do we keep hidden behind a mask.
Kwidzinski, who specializes in dance movement, has 30 years of experience working with older adults, mainly those with dementia and those who are in wheelchairs. She has a dance company in Mission, and the dancers worked with the mask makers to create movements related to the masks and the residents’ ideas. The dancers became the bodies of the mask makers, who chose the movements and the music. The mask makers came on stage with the dancers for the performance.
Young, one of the mask makers, expressed how moving the entire experience had been. She said the group became close, even though they hadn’t known each other well before.
Young said she had been reluctant about the dance aspect but felt that the dancers were extremely supportive and, at the end, she said she found the movements liberating, as if she were also dancing. She said she gained energy and willpower from the experience, and thanked Power, Kwidzinski and Fox for giving her the ability and opportunity to “get up and keep going.”
Fox has produced award-winning films, documentaries, music videos and public service announcements. He was involved in the Masks Project from the beginning. He felt that the journey was as important as the film and the art produced. The film was screened at the forum, and can be viewed at youtube.com/watch?v=YspYE6juiy0.
Gyda Chud, JSA first vice-president, led the question-and-answer session. Members of the audience expressed their appreciation for the information and the beauty of the project. It was suggested that advocacy was needed to have this type of project adopted by other care homes and adult day-care centres.
I wrapped up the afternoon event with a thank you to the presenters, which was followed by snacks provided by Gala Catering.
Shanie Levin is an executive board member of Jewish Seniors Alliance and on the editorial board of Senior Line magazine.