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The Very Act of Living: Artist in Residence Kaidy Lewis’s Enthusiastic Foray into the Heart of Creativity

“You remind me of when my mother used to read to me.”

“It takes strength and intelligence to be passive.”

“Can we have a live model?”

“Art is a place where everyone could be free.”

These words and many other “aha” moments fill the pages of Kaidy Lewis’s journal—statements made during art classes she leads at The Forest at Duke.

Creative beginnings

As a child, Kaidy thrilled at the opportunity to paint with color. With her delighted brother and mother always urging her to do more, she filled limitless expanses of paper with pigment, life, and light.

“For me, art and the creative process blended very early on in my mind as an abstract concept,” Kaidy explains. “The very act of living is art! To use one’s hands, eyes, heart, and mind to make something is one of life’s real and profound joys.”

Kaidy has retained that joy in creativity to this day. In its wider sense, she says, creativity can teach tools for life: “It is expressive, a problem solver, and often transformative for the individual and the community, as it has been for all societies from mankind’s earliest emergence.”

As Kaidy grew, so too did her love for art and its seemingly endless expressions. Her beloved grandfather and a supportive teacher at her high school saw Kaidy’s potential as a visual artist and encouraged her to apply to art school. Soon she secured a place at one of the United Kingdom’s top art schools, Chelsea College of Art & Design in London.

A different path

Then, as they so often do, the harsh realities of life intervened. Kaidy’s grandfather took ill with cancer, and the budding young artist decided she needed to give up her place at Chelsea and move in to support her grandparents.

Thoughtfully observing health care professionals caring for her grandfather at close hand, Kaidy soon saw life open a different path to her. She applied herself wholeheartedly to a career as a specialist nurse, delivering support to patients with chronic conditions requiring medical regimens that had greatly impacted their lives. In doing so, she realized that her talents and knowledge of art, science, and health shared a very common and constructive space.

Through her work as a specialist nurse, Kaidy began using art as a tool to improve compliance through self-awareness and cognitive recognition. Over time, her career led her to run a social enterprise for adults with learning difficulties, as she served as the Art Manager at Canterbury Oast Trust in Kent, England. She also designed creativity workshops and developed her own style of semi abstract painting.

Kaidy soon became conscious of building her career around a client-centered model—engaging with and developing others’ skills, interests, and abilities through time and consistent effort. “The challenge is to find the activity or interest that can kindle a spark in a new participant,” she says. “It can be astonishing the rate of progress and blossoming of talent once this careful and sensitive groundwork has been done.”

Exploring ideas and meaning

Apart from her nursing role, Kaidy continued to engage in personal expressions of creativity. A practicing artist, she always felt that just “filling in the lines” made for very dull art. “Art for me is … exploring ideas and meaning,” she describes. “If done with love and courage, your painting will have that embedded.”

Kaidy’s works were and are largely inspired by some of the greats. French painter Jean-Édouard Vuillard’s depictions of interiors and relationships resonated with her. Abstract and expressionist painter Ivon Hitchens stirred her with the spirituality in his paintings. Kaidy also loved the enigmas and analogies in Mary Fedden’s oil paintings, as well as the embodiment of life in Grayson Perry’s contemporary art, to include his ceramic vases and tapestries. Of the latter, she says, “He is fully alive. Grayson Perry, for me, uses art for a higher purpose, to inspire, educate, and inform communities to ‘save’ themselves through art. Creating making creators.”

Indeed, it’s plain to see Perry’s influence on Kaidy’s path.

The unique piece depicted here is the result of a collaboration between a multitude of residents involved in the Henry Rogers Art Program, who each used different mediums to produce a gorgeous result. It includes a felted background with many pieces of wisdom, personal memories, and other trinkets of each resident’s experience attached.

The Henry Rogers Art Program

Ultimately, Kaidy’s background in health care and experience in social and clinical support, coupled with her life as a successful professional artist, put her in a good position to get involved in a new adventure. Knowing it was a good match for her interests and skill set, she decided to apply to become the Artist in Residence for the Henry Rogers Art Program at The Forest at Duke.

The grant funded art program began in memory of its namesake, the late Henry Rogers—a talented artist and former Forest resident. Through a generous grant funded by Henry’s family, the project intends to help facilitate residents’ interest in art and enable their creativity through a wide variety of art expressions, as led and encouraged by the Artist in Residence.

During her interview for the lead role in this program, Kaidy learned that the grant envisaged the project would initially be directly supported by someone like her, and in the future, aided and supplemented by other visiting artists and creative people like writers, poets, and musicians.

While the role would begin by serving residents in the Health Center, the intention was (and still is) to broaden its delivery to include and encourage residents from across campus. This would allow all residents of The Forest at Duke to join the Artist in Residence and their neighbors in the health center, where they could expand and enrich their experience, regardless of their relative level of independence.

A Forest resident works on her contribution to a larger collaborative piece with her Health Center neighbors.

Initial accomplishments

Kaidy was a shoo-in for the Artist in Residence role at The Forest and soon found that her new position shared many parallels with her Art Manager experience in the UK.

“The participants have a variety of different needs and abilities, and the project ensures that there is a safe space for these abilities to be recognized, encouraged and developed,” she explains. “These skills include vocational and creative activities, like horticulture, agriculture, and a wide range of art and creative activities. The key thing is to encourage an environment where the independent and [those needing additional support] can mix and support and learn from each other.”

Just as Kaidy began her residency, the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe and The Forest quickly put necessary precautions into place for its residents and team members’ protection. As such, some of the earlier initiatives that Kaidy had envisioned were temporarily put on hold. Nonetheless, Kaidy continued to think ahead and brainstorm ways to maximize the benefits of the art project to all Forest residents.

The Henry Rogers Art Program provides access to an art kiosk, a designated arts space in the Health Center that is fully stocked with a variety of materials and supplies—all openly available to residents at any time.

When she was unable to deliver art sessions on campus early in the pandemic, Kaidy sourced and equipped an art kiosk in the Health Center. A large cupboard that houses a wide variety of art supplies, the kiosk, located in Olsen, includes many useful and exciting features. A working table, fitted with light and power, allows residents space to paint, draw, or otherwise create. Materials of all kinds—paper, writing and drawing instruments, wool, and an array of other bits and bobs—fill the kiosk’s every nook and cranny, affording residents endless possibilities to express themselves. The cupboard even holds a small sewing machine.

With these materials available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the art kiosk has been and remains an essential and invaluable resource on campus.

Pop-ups and other tangible successes

In November 2020, as small gatherings with appropriate safeguards rolled out at The Forest, Kaidy finally had the go-ahead to engage in person with Health residents during biweekly 90-minute pop-up sessions.

Right away, the rewards of developing the project were huge. In an otherwise dismal time for much of the world, program participants and the passionate leader they found in Kaidy discovered joy, laughter, and a palpable sense of wellbeing in the time they spent together.

A Forest resident works on a beautiful original painting of sailboats in one of Kaidy’s pop-up art sessions.

“I knew the project was going to be a success when reluctant residents brought flowers and dried foliage from their walks to inspire those who wanted to paint,” Kaidy reflects. “They were observing art and nature and sourcing materials to add to the collective that is being built.”

When Kaidy arrives at The Forest for the gatherings, residents are already lined up by the art kiosk to help set up the day’s activities: “Some residents check the books I bring into read. Some wait to discuss the garden and the plants we have planted. All of this is happening even before the morning workshop begins.”

In addition to her art sessions and kiosk in Olsen, Kaidy has facilitated a number of other achievements in the grant funded Henry Rogers program. She hosts two reading group meetings twice a week in Regency and schedules one-on-one art sessions with Health residents. An art exhibition, produced by residents under Kaidy’s wing, is featured in the Skywalk gallery on the Independent Living side of the Community Center building. Additionally, at least three residents demonstrate notable painting ability and find support in Kaidy to make and finish quality paintings.

Artist extraordinaire

In her life apart from The Forest at Duke, Kaidy paints from the studio in her home at least twice a week and regularly sells her paintings from respected galleries and organizations here in the United States and in the UK. This year, she was selected as an artist in the Society of Women Artists, whose annual exhibitions are held at the Mall Galleries in London.

Kaidy stands with one of her original paintings. (Photo via Kaidy Lewis Art on Facebook)

Kaidy is also a member artist at FRANK Gallery in downtown Chapel Hill and has a featured show there this month. She further serves as the Jury Chair for the Orange County Artists Guild here in North Carolina.

Moved by the extraordinarily interesting and fulfilling lives of the residents she meets, Kaidy often finds that she has as much to learn from them as they do from her. Basing her interactions on psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s notion of “unconditional respect,” she carefully, thoughtfully engages with residents to find a spark of interest to build on—even something as simple as finding a good music track to dance along to or tapping into a memory that can be teased out to inform a work of art.

As the project continues and expands, Kaidy has found great appreciation and praise for her work from residents, their families, and Forest team members. “You are exactly what this place needs,” they tell her.

A Forest resident works on a personal art project in one of Kaidy’s pop-up sessions.

One resident’s daughter wrote, “From my observations as a regular visitor, Kaidy has been a gift from heaven for people living in the Health Center. She is an amazing visual artist, but that’s just the gravy. Her talents also lie in her ability to meet each resident where they are on any particular day and offer to them the opportunity to be creative and express themselves. Her ability to recognize what resonates most for each person is remarkable. She offers consistent bright spots of novelty, engagement, interest, accomplishment, and individual attention.”

Unlocking treasures

As it stands, the Henry Rogers Art Program is already a resounding success, attracting numerous residents to its biweekly pop-up sessions by the art kiosk in Olsen. Kaidy is at the center of the project, a skilled and thoughtful artist who delights in seeing others delight in art. Her heart is absolutely in her present work, but her thoughts often journey into what is yet to come.

“In the future I foresee a light, multi-purpose environment that houses a creative community,” she imagines, “with additional volunteers and creative practitioners that will be able to offer not only a wider range of activities but allow for even more personal interaction, which is often the key to bringing on a [resident] to fully engage and enjoy activities.”

If, like she says, art is the very act of living, Kaidy Lewis is a masterful guide to unlocking the extraordinary treasures of creativity and self-discovery for residents at The Forest at Duke.

Lauren Young, Marketing Specialist

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