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Preview: "Reflections" will be on display, with commentary by participant, Friday from 5-8 p.m. at Art Hang Up and Body Basics, 525 N. Higgins Ave.

Sadie Gibson had never thought of herself as a tree. As an aging woman, yes, she was more than aware of that. But a tree? Nonsense. The 68-year-old woman, a resident at the Hunter's Glen Assisted Living, has lived a long life in Missoula, but Friday she will experience a first: Gibson's art, as well as the work of about a dozen other residents of Hunters Glen who participated in an art therapy workshop, will be put on display at the new Art Hang Ups gallery.

The eight-part art therapy workshop gave UM senior Amy Swallow, who studies psychology and art, a chance to practice all she has learned about her chosen career path before she graduates this May. The elderly women, she said, were great subjects because people who live in nursing homes sometimes grow depressed and detached as they deal with their aging and health problems. By introducing women who may not have retained much of their verbal and mental expression over the years to art therapy, Swallow said, they are given a new creative outlet to discover - or rediscover - things about themselves and their past.

"The idea is to use art as an expressive tool to reminisce and to explain your emotions and feelings in a nonverbal way," Swallow said. "I was able to work with those wonderful women and learn a lot about aging and appreciating things in your life."

Each of the eight workshops, held the last two weeks of February, focused on a certain element of expression, including painting, drawing, collage work and ceramics, Swallow said.

Additionally, each of the workshops included an element of therapy, asking the women to creatively express their feelings about their lives with their hands. After participating in a "lifeline" activity, where participants made a collage of the timeline of their life, one woman who has lost much of her memory was able to recall some of the things in her past.

"This woman, with some assistance, was able to go through her life and remember different things, including some pretty profound stuff," Swallow said.

Gibson said she had never forayed into expressive arts, and in fact had dismissed it most her life as "just a picture, just a scene." Today, however, she has a new understanding about herself and creative expression.

"It brought out things in your body you didn't think were there," Gibson said. "It was something that I never thought art could be. I really didn't see the point of art until we had these classes."

Grace Hutchins, the activities director at Hunters Glen, said the workshop and resulting art were an experience in just how active the minds of the elderly truly are when stimulated.

"It helps them to interact with other people, to look outside their own world and it helps them to have a positive outlet and occupy their time," Hutchins said.

Swallow said most the women, ranging in age from their late 60s to mid-90s, were eager to participate, and gave her a first-hand look at how creative expression can be as therapeutic, if not more therapeutic, to certain types of people than traditional clinical therapy.

"It can be really useful, not just with elderly people but with anybody not able to express themselves verbally, like small children," Swallow said. "But there's a lot of uses that haven't been explained or researched, and this, hopefully, will open up some eyes to the fact that it really is important."

"I think that anybody that is really talented and can do art should," Gibson, who will be attending the show, said. "It really gives you a good sense of feeling and a good sense of being."

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