Poppy Terris tiptoes into Ada Leinwand’s home, careful not to disturb Leinwand, who is sitting in her wheelchair, plucking notes on a piano in the living room.
With her back turned to the front door, Leinwand, 85, doesn’t notice Terris at first. When her caretaker considers alerting her, Terris puts a finger to her lips and says, “Shhh … ”
She wants to surprise Leinwand.
For five years, the Sarasota art therapist has met Leinwand in her home in The Landings to engage in weekly art-therapy sessions.
They usually sit at a table in Leinwand’s kitchen and recreate fairytale scenes on canvas, using a variety of mixed media to tell the stories, including watercolors, colored pencils and Leinwand’s signature scraps of fabric.
Leinwand, a retired elementary-school librarian, from Long Island, N.Y., loves fairy tales and can still recite them as if she’s perched in front of a gaggle of children.
The women talk about their children. They each have four. They talk about Wisconsin, where Terris grew up and where Leinwand met her husband when she was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
They talk about etymology, the study of words, with which they’re both fascinated and often incorporate into their artwork.
“My goal is always to engage,” Terris says. “Sometimes we do it through painting; sometimes she and I might not paint at all. If just talking is engaging, then that’s rewarding enough.”
A liberal-arts psychology professor at Ringling College of Art and Design, Terris is one of few registered art therapists in Sarasota who works primarily with elderly clients.
In addition to private sessions, she also works at the Senior Friendship Center, where Dec. 2 she unveiled an artistic collaboration between Ringling students and elders.
Two days later, at the one-year anniversary of Goodwill art retailer Art Off Clark, she spoke about the importance of art therapy, a practice she describes as “other-oriented.”
“In art therapy, the client always dictates what we’re doing,” says Terris, who twice a month runs an art-leadership program at Phoenix Academy. “I’d say that’s the main distinction between occupational therapy and art therapy. The directive comes from the client.”
She reaches for a postcard on which Leinwand has drawn a circle and sets a box of colored pencils in front of Leinwand’s right hand.
Leinwand suffered a stroke 12 years ago and lost the function of the left side of her body. Since then, all of her artwork shifts to the right side of the paper. To keep her pictures centered, Terris sits to Leinwand’s right and steadies the paper as she draws.
Once finished, Leinwand will mail the post card to her grandson, an artist in New York who designs mandalas — spiritual circles similar to a mosaics.
“I try to tap into whatever works for that person,” Terris says. “When Ada starts to reminisce, we’ll put a vision or a piece of art to that memory.”
Four years ago, Leinwand, inspired by the Walt Whitman poem, “Song of Myself,” began covering journals in snippets of fabric, likening the cloth to words because both can easily be “pieced together.”
The journals became so popular Leinwand began selling them for $10 each.
In 2008, one of the works was featured in an exhibit at the Florida State Capitol, in Tallahassee. Since then, Leinwand has sold more than 30 versions of the Whitman diary.
“I always liked to draw and paint,” Leinwand says. “But I wasn’t always a good artist. It’s Poppy who changed me, not art therapy. She made me see differently. She gave me a new perspective.”
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]