Finding That Magic Spark

Gawen Hamilton, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, and his Family, 1732 Oil on canvas, 93.4 x 83.3 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

The Earl of Strafford sits in an opulent chair gesturing to his wife and son, clad in bright red, standing before him. To the side, his daughters are daintily sipping tea. The large rug underfoot has a ripple, possibly caused by the playful dog enthusiastically posing for the painter.

Facing this scene at the National Gallery of Canada are some thirty people who are listening to a Gallery guide as she helps them navigate this small but detailed painting. The 1732 portrait Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, and his Family, painted by the Scottish painter Gawen Hamilton, is a conversation piece, a genre popular in the 18th century that featured small-scale groupings of people – often families or friends – in informal settings. A lively gentleman in the group points out that it reminds him of growing up on a ranch in Southwestern Ontario:  "When the weather was good, we were almost always there talking as a family, looking at the view …”.  He is linking his own experience to the nearly 300-year-old artwork in front of him. He, and others in the group, are participating in a tour offered by the Gallery’s SPARK! program. They are suffering from some form of Mild Cognitive Impairment brought on by dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. The rest of the group comprises caregivers and Gallery volunteers.

Now in its third year, the Gallery's SPARK! program is offered in consultation with community partners and provides tours and informal conversations on art for individuals living with dementia and their caregivers “One of our goals is to be able to give participants a visual reminder,” says Andrea Gumpert, the educator at the National Gallery of Canada who created SPARK! in collaboration with the Dementia Society of Ottawa and Renfrew County (DSORC). “Looking at artworks together provokes moments of pleasure and joy. An essential part of the program, and unique to other day programs offered at the Gallery, is that caregivers are included in the experience. This helps to normalize the environment for everyone.”

When Ron Hoffenberg was diagnosed with dementia in 2012, his wife Rose Ann became his caregiver and they soon experienced one of the most common fallouts of such a diagnosis – social isolation. The Gallery's SPARK! program was in its first year and created an opportunity for an outing. They both participated in every tour that year and, after his passing in 2018, she has stayed on as a volunteer and continues to witness the magical connection people with limited communication abilities have with the artworks. Monique Thibault, a Dementia Care Coach at DSORC, has also heard positive stories of people’s experiences. She notes that the calm setting of SPARK! helps persons with the disease participate without having to face anxiety.

All SPARK! tours are structured in the same way: five to six artworks are explored within a theme. On this particular afternoon, family portraits were the highlighted topic. In front of the Wentworth family portrait the guide asks the group to imagine what a family gathering of their own would be like – where would they be, who would be there and what kind of conversation would take place.

These types of questions stem from a program established by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 2009. The goal is to encourage the group to interact with the artwork and each other and to gain new insights. Inspired by MoMA's program, Gumpert notes she has no shortage of options when it comes to choosing works of art at the National Gallery of Canada, "as long as they provide a narrative and an overall cohesiveness. And big art is always a welcome inclusion."

Nancy Graves, Installation view of Camel VI, Camel VII and Camel VIII, 1968–69. Wood, steel, burlap, polyurethane, animal skin, wax, oil paint, 228.6 x 365.8 x 121.9 cm (approx.). National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. © Estate of Nancy Graves / VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York SOCAN, Montreal (2019). Photo: NGC

Nancy Graves' life-size installation of Camel VI, Camel VII and Camel VIII (1968–69) was one of the works that sparked a memory in Ron Hoffenberg. “For some reason my husband knew all about camels,” says Rose Ann. Having become quiet and withdrawn in the years following his diagnosis, Ron responded to an aspect of this contemporary work and, for that one moment, it allowed his wife to see a part of him that had disappeared.

Coming to the Gallery for SPARK! tours with both her parents has given Wendy McIntyre the chance to witness each of them connect with something from their past and with her. Her mother having passed away recently, she attended the tour alone with her father Lorne. He had not participated much, but as they walked down one of the side galleries, he stopped his wheelchair in front of a Paul Gauguin landscape. “I remember this one,” he commented. Wendy was in awe. “It’s amazing for him to remember something he had seen a year earlier,” she says. Being in front of the painting triggered something. “I remember the orientation, how the artist had set it up,” says Lorne of the artwork. These details are important to a mechanical engineer.

“The realization that this experience is giving something of her father back to her is the whole point of this program” says Gumpert. “Being able to create an environment where that can happen is so important.” For her, the rewarding experience is to see SPARK! tours encourage discussion and personal reflection in a comforting environment where art can be a trigger and a way to spend time together.


The SPARK! program takes place at the National Gallery of Canada on the last Tuesday of every month. The French program, Rayon d’art, is offered on the second Tuesday of the month. For more information, please contact the Dementia Society of Ottawa and Renfrew County. Share this article and also subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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