Cat Balco

Mural by Cat Balco, part of the Ellipses Project at Real Art Ways. (Cat Balco / May 13, 2014)

Two years ago, five young female students at University of Hartford took a summer internship to work with hospice patients and other long-term shut-ins on art projects. All went into The Ellipses Project, organized by Art Professor Cat Balco, thinking they would learn about art therapy.

They all did, but they all learned more, about subjects that had nothing to do with art.

"What I learned was about death. That's a subject that in our society is pushed into the fringe because people can't deal with it," said Sara Adams of Lisbon. "This is something that is normal and natural and inevitable."

Adams and Alyssa Nett of Glastonbury, Allie Corriveau of Enfield, Catherine Johnson of Boston and Kimberly Zebrowski of Hockessin, Del., can be seen now at Real Art Ways in Hartford, not their artwork, but themselves. They are featured in a video reel, talking about their interactions with their mostly elderly patients. It is projected onto a gallery wall across from a two-sided mural by Balco.

Balco came up with the idea for the project in 2011. "The core of the project was how art could be valuable as a practice and process instead of something you look at," she said. "Art heals. Art reaches a deeper part of ourselves."

It evolved into something more, she said, encompassing no less than the meaning of life.

"Dying is a sacred part of life," she said. "You find that people at the end of life don't care about superficial things, money, cars, jobs. They care about things that have meaning in their lives.

"Death is a threshold, a portal to understanding an inner world," Balco said. "Painting is representational of that. ... Art is something we can use to evolve spiritually."

The women were assigned five patients and met with them at appointed times every week. Often, the patients didn't want to create art. They just wanted the companionship.

"It all depended on how the resident was feeling. Some people had dementia. Some days we made progress and other days they weren't in the right mindset to be working," Nett said. "You might end up just spending time with them."

Those talks, Nett said, encompassed many interesting topics. "They talk about what they regretted, 'did I do that right?' who has family around them, who doesn't," she said. "It made me think about relationships in my life. It makes you appreciate the relationships around you. It also makes you appreciate if you have good health, especially around kids who never really got to experience that, who've been ill their whole lives."

Johnson said among her patients were an art teacher, an opera aficionado and one patient "who just wanted to talk about her life and play around with watercolors."

She said the project changed her outlook and her art. "I did start a series inspired by this project, diptych portraits, one side representational images of people I know, and the other of me trying to express how I feel through colors and shapes," she said. "It caused me to really focus on my relationships and why each person is valuable to me."

Corriveau, who was studying psychology and ceramics, said the project solidified her desire to work in art therapy. "I want to work with people and use art to connect with them," she said. "Art can help you talk to someone without using any words."

For Zebrowski, the effect of the summer program was just the the opposite. "It takes a very special person to be an art therapist. I'm not really strong enough to do it. I lost one patient and it was very devastating," she said.

She still got a lot out of the program. "You get a whole new appreciation for 'just because you're dying doesn't mean you're dead'," she said. "Time is very precious. They know that the end is close and they know their life is timed. They are very appreciative of this."

THE ELLIPSES PROJECT Part One: Perimeters & Portals will be at Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St. in Hartford, until July 8. Part Two: Indications & Evidence will be there from July 10 to Aug. 8. Details: www.realartways.org.