Cal Dobrzynski

By Heidi Biggs

Cal Dobrzynski swapped coasts to be in the 2020 MDes cohort, joining the program following a stint as a visual designer in New York. After earning a bachelor’s degree in graphic design at Penn State and working as a designer for several years, Cal realized she missed doing work that had an element of service and giving back to a community. Inspired by the incredible installation and design work of members of UW’s Design faculty, Cal applied to the MDes program to benefit from their mentorship and find opportunities to design for different outcomes and audiences.

Her thesis research, as well as her earliest connections to design, actually stem from a love of photography, which she in turn ties to interactions with her great-grandmother who had Alzheimer’s disease. When her great-grandmother looked at photographs, she would experience bursts of returned memories. Experience interacting with her great-grandmother led Cal to a latent insight that the arts can positively impact people with memory loss — an insight that permeates Cal’s thesis research.

Over the past year, Cal’s research aimed to design every day arts programming for the Alzheimer’s community. Alzheimer’s disease is common but deeply affecting. It is known for causing memory loss, but it also impacts sensory perception, thinking, and planning abilities as brain cells die and the brain shrinks. Cal laments that many people view Alzheimer’s as an ending, but, realistically, once a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease those individuals often have ten to fifteen years of life left. Through her own experiences with her great-grandmother and extensive research, Cal noticed talking about memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease is often difficult, and those diagnosed can feel stigmatized, embarrassed, or isolated by the disease. In addition, Alzheimer’s caregivers often feel limited in how they can interact with people they care for as those they care for lose cognitive abilities and memories. This stigma and sense of isolation is what motivated Cal’s thesis in which she designed art programming to enhance Alzheimer’s patients’ day-to-day lives and empower caregivers to have interactions with patients that don’t infantilize or talk-past those patients and are enjoyable for both parties.

Cal’s first encounter with the memory loss community was through a grant writing class taught by Karen Cheng. Researching grants, Cal noticed a need for arts programing for people with memory loss. She connected with members of the University of Washington’s Brain and Memory Wellness Center and, through writing the grant, was inspired to apply to make an installation about Alzheimer’s disease for the 2019 Seattle Design Festival. She was accepted and designed an installation in partnership with Elderwise and The Gathering Place, two local Seattle organizations that do arts and community programming for people with early stage dementia. The exhibition displayed information about Alzheimer’s disease and paintings from arts events run by Elderwise and also invited community members to paint and hang their paintings as part of the exhibit. The exhibition made space for festival-goers to make, discuss, and contribute, with a guiding but not heavy-handed goal of dialogue, learning, and community interaction.

Her experience at the Seattle Design Festival had momentum that carried into her thesis research where she wanted to move from designing for communication about Alzheimer’s to actively bringing arts programming into the everyday home environments of people with Alzheimer’s. Cal decided the best way to do this was through making at-home kits that encouraged everyday creativity. Most memory loss art programming is either free and outside of the home or can travel to someone’s home but costs money. Cal wanted to provide free, at-home arts programming that empowered a caregiver to feel confident leading creative projects and leveraged an at-home environment for the Alzheimer’s patient. This took her down two research paths: understanding how to make the most of a person with Alzheimer’s disease’s home environment and deciding how to make the kit — what should go in it and how it should be constructed.

Cal researched ways that a home environment could be tailored to someone with Alzheimer’s disease and used that information to create an informative installation at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery for the MDes poster show. She built a “home” in the gallery by using vinyl tape to draw windows on the gallery wall and setting a table out on the gallery floor. The home was annotated with text tags that explained how each home object might impact a person with Alzheimer’s. For example, a tag near a window informed the viewer that something as simple as sitting by an open window in natural lighting will improve an Alzheimer’s patient’s mood significantly and a tag by a red plate informed viewers that using brightly colored dishes stimulates Alzheimer patient’s appetites.

As she was creating this installation, Cal was also researching how to make her kit. She volunteered for the Frye Art Museum’s memory loss program to gain hands-on experience working with the memory loss community. While volunteering, she facilitated art making with a woman who was nearly blind, teaching her about collaborative art facilitation and the importance of textured, dimensional materials. Cal also ran her own art workshop at Kline Galland, a Seattle nursing and rehabilitation center, where she explored materials and methods she wanted to use in her kit. She found the memory loss community was full of enthusiastic art makers, eager to try all the materials she brought to use.

The COVID-19 lockdowns derailed Cal’s plans to deploy her at-home art kits and observe how Alzheimer’s patients used them. Instead, she pivoted to co-design online art programming for a memory unit at the Kline Galland nursing home. She connected with a memory unit caregiver to create art programs for the memory unit from afar. Cal and the caregiver truly worked together to design and iterate on the programming, debriefing after every art session to discuss what worked and what could be improved. So far, Cal’s art projects have included a Matisse-themed collage activity and a Man Ray-themed photogram where the memory unit members went outside to pick flowers and leaves for their compositions. These activities incorporate simple but impactful things for people with Alzheimer’s disease, like bright colors, tactile materials, and trips outdoors. The community members love these programs: one member of the memory unit claimed she “jumps out of bed” on days she knows they are making art. What is really special about this programming is that Cal is empowering the community caregiver to feel comfortable running the art programming and intends to pass it off to her after she finishes her thesis.

Cal’s programming is unique because it advocates for art as an approachable, everyday activity that genuinely improves the lives of people with Alzheimer’s disease and their relationships with their caregivers. In many cases, artists are brought in to run art programs, but Cal believes that creativity can be facilitated and enjoyed by anyone. There is some kind of belief that an artist must provide arts programming, but Cal addressed this head-on as her designs argue for every day, non-specialized art interactions between caregivers and their memory loss patients. Cal’s main goal is to communicate that people with Alzheimer’s and memory loss are still people, and she is designing spaces for them and their caregivers to connect and relate in ways that don’t infantilize or talk past the person with Alzheimer’s or memory loss. Through her thesis, she ultimately argues that creativity is for everyone, at any stage in life, and art practices can give Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers a new, empowering way to interact.

Return to Cal Dobrzynski’s portfolio.