“I am thinking of a favorite day in my life. What were you wearing on your favorite day?” With this simple question, Nancy Raia, art teacher and Director of Outreach at the Eastern Shore Art Center, draws out stories of childhood, personal accomplishments, and simple pleasures from her class of adults who have suffered memory loss and disabilities. Raia uses affirmative memory techniques, such as avoiding the word remember, to stir forgetting minds until once-familiar moments become almost clear again. Paint brushes slowly fill in pieces of the past–a St. Louis Cardinals jersey worn to baseball games with his son, jeans ironed into straight creases again and again for her children, cut-off pants worn fishing the day after the Army finally set him free. Lives lived before Alzheimer’s. Before the stroke.
“I draw a line, you draw a line, and our conversation begins.”
“Nancy takes our people back to things they can remember, a time when they had clarity,” says Leisa Richards, director of Shepherd’s Place in Fairhope, a daily program that provides care and activities for adults with memory loss or physical needs. “They relax and their personality comes out. They show who they were before, when they weren’t fearful or insecure. Nancy’s art projects give them things to take home and display, and it builds their self-esteem.”
Raia is a natural artist, but majored in finance at Emory University and worked in banking, television, insurance and, acting. While voluntarily teaching art classes at her daughter’s elementary school, Raia rediscovered her own creative roots and found her calling. Twenty years later, Raia was named the 2011 Art Educator of the Year for Special Needs by the Alabama Art Education Association. She is also an award-winning artist specializing in acrylic and watercolors. She designs her own line of uplifting pen and ink greeting cards and motivational products that are sold at the Eastern Shore Art Center and Private Gallery in Fairhope.
Raia’s creativity and contagious energy help her connect with any person, no matter the artistic skill or disability. She is an expressive teacher with a personality as cheerful as the yellow or pink shirts that she often wears. As she gives instructions, encouragement, or shares a story, it is clear that she sincerely cares about each person around her.
“I am a communicator first,” Raia describes herself. “I like to use art and humor to communicate. We all speak the same language through art, no matter the situation, illness, or disability. Art is about connection and showing that everyone has a story. I love to tell these stories and I lobby for people who don’t have as loud a voice.”
Fairhope is a natural place for Raia’s uplifting and healing art. Founded by artists in 1894, the town is still a thriving community for artists, and Raia’s work is symbolic of the artistic spirit of Fairhope. Each month, Raia and her volunteers teach over 100 children and adults with disabilities or chronic illnesses in classes at the Regional School in Mobile, The Brennity assisted living in Daphne and Fairhope, and Shepherd’s Place. They also teach art classes and art camps for children and youth groups such as the Fairhope Rotary Club’s youth program and the Snook Boys and Girls Club in Foley.
“Whatever the population is, Nancy is able to pin it down. It is her soul and she loves what she does,” says Susan Wright, Raia’s treasured volunteer assistant. “She reads a room and watches how they interact with each other, then makes adjustments. If there is a problem or hesitation, she immediately shifts to find another way to get their attention.”
Marion Peters, 57, is one of Raia’s students at The Brennity in Daphne. A former nursing instructor at The University of South Alabama, Peters has Huntington’s disease, a neurodegenerative genetic disorder that causes a breakdown of nerve cells in the brain and a decline in physical and mental abilities. “This disease is something that gets worse and it causes depression and high anxiety,” says Peters. “My penmanship is bad, but painting is something that I can still do with my hands. It makes me feel good that I did it.”
It’s that sense of accomplishment, the chance to let go of problems and express thoughts and feelings without the barriers of disabilities, that proves the healing powers of art. Helping people connect with their emotions and express themselves is Raia’s biggest reward.
“All you need for my class is a sense of humor, an open mind and willingness to paint,” says Raia. “I draw a line, you draw a line and our conversation begins,” says Raia. “We share a lot together and at the end of the class I feel completely fulfilled.”
The Eastern Shore Art Center (ESAC) does not charge for the outreach classes and it provides all of the class materials. The Center is funded by private donations, grants, membership dues, and art sales, but it does not receive money from the city of Fairhope or taxes. Additional funding is always needed.
To make a donation to the Eastern Shore Art Center, call (251) 928-2228 or mail the donation to ESAC Director Kate Fisher at 401 Oak Street, Fairhope, AL 36532.
(Story originally printed in Sense magazine, October 2012)