Remembering Ourselves To Ourselves: Memory Art With Jon Kay

Jon Kay interviewed people who started making art later in life as a way of reflecting on the past and memorializing stories.

marian sykes with hooked rug

Photo: Traditional Arts Indiana

Marian Sykes started creating hooked rugs when she relocated to Chesterton, Indiana.

Event Information

Memory Art and Aging: The Life-Story Objects of Indiana Seniors

From colorful walking sticks and quilts to paintings and hooked rugs, seniors make art to reflect upon their lives, record their memories, and share their stories. A talk by Traditional Arts Indiana Director Jon Kay.


Bloomington City Hall Council Chambers

Tuesday, May 13 4:00-5:30pm

Traditional Arts Indiana

Creative Aging Festival (pdf)

Stitching A Story

Folklorist Jon Kay heard about hooked rug maker Marian Sykes when he received an announcement about a show of hooked rugs in Chesterton, Indiana. He clicked through the images and most rugs were what he always sees from Indiana artists — floral designs and New England patterns.

“And then all of a sudden, wow,” he says. “There’s a scene of some kids throwing snowballs and that looks not like just a general scene. That’s somebody’s personal memory.”

Kay, also the director of Traditional Arts Indiana, called the gallery owners, who put him contact with Sykes. Several weeks later, he was interviewing her in her kitchen.

Sykes moved to Chesterton late in life to be close to her son. The community happened to have a hooked rug club, so at 80 years old, she picked up the new art form.

To her, making hooked rugs is a form of storytelling. She grew up at the Angel Guardian orphanage in Chicago, but her art doesn’t depict images from her harsh and abusive childhood. She prefers to portray happy moments.

“One of the first rugs she made was of Little Italy, the place where her family was from,” he says. “She created this rug that memorialized the fond memories when she got to leave the orphanage and go and visit her father on a couple weekends of the year.” The rug shows a horse and wagon stocked with fruits and vegetables and children playing in the streets.

Sykes now has 20 hooked rugs in her portfolio.

Memorializing Ourselves

Making art helps keep the brain sharp. It taps into both intellectual and creative functions. It draws on physical skills and it encourages social interactions.

I often talk about this with respect to community planning, that creating environments where we can remember ourselves to ourselves is important.

That’s according to Phil Stafford, Director of the Center on Aging and Community at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community.

He says art helps remind us who we are. ”I often talk about this with respect to community planning, that creating environments where we can remember ourselves to ourselves is important,” he says.

He adds that can be a struggle for older people who relocate or find themselves in environments where their sense of self is not reflected.

Coping With Struggles

The majority of people Kay spoke with started creating art in their 70s or 80s, after an intense life event — relocation, retirement or the death of a loved one. It filled quiet moments in the day when they were unable to socialize.

It also allowed them time to reflect on their lives. Stafford calls this Reminiscence Therapy, a technique often employed by art therapists.

“In other words to draw upon their own life history, sometimes to identify those successes, achievements, skills and adaptive behaviors that they’ve used to cope with struggles in the past that they can recultivate to address struggles they may be encountering in old age,” he says.

Kay spoke with painter John Schoolman before he passed away four years ago. Schoolman had always carried a walking stick, but he started painting them after his wife Ada died. “And he told me, ‘I had to learn to be alone. I had to learn to find happiness,’” says Kay.

Schoolman told Kay that he was his happiest when he was painting those walking sticks.

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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