Blended voices echo generations of sound off the white walls and hardwood floors at Windemere’s Unit 3 Nursing and Rehabilitation Center every Monday afternoon.
“What should we sing next?” Melisande (“Melissa”) Knowles asked the group of residents, adults, and children gathered for the weekly community sing. Together, they made music for an hour. They integrated hand movements, dancing, storytelling, and frequent song requests. Residents closed their eyes, listened, and remembered.
“Music stays with you,” Knowles said in an interview with The Times. Knowles leads the weekly music outreach program. She started it about a year and a half ago. “Whether or not you remember your name, where you’re from, or what you do — you tend to remember words of songs. They can bring to mind forgotten memories that only music can.”
Children from At Home in the Woods, a homeschool cooperative in West Tisbury, attend the shared musicmaking gathering each week.
“We want [the kids] to engage with the elderly community,” said Kaila Allen-Posin, one of the parents who brings her two children, Arlo and Tavi, each week. “I feel like it’s so mutually beneficial. The kids have gotten to know the residents. We love coming, and we love Melissa.”
Knowles moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 2017, and started music outreach at Windemere right away. She leads a second session on Tuesdays in Unit 4, for residents in need of more assistance. She’s hoping to involve older students in the Tuesday sessions.
“I can’t tell you what it means for the residents,” Knowles said. “That intergenerational connection is an essential part in caring for the elderly.”
When Knowles sings, she engages everyone in the room. She makes eye contact, and offers physical touch.
“[The residents] need physical contact too,” Knowles said. “I try to make everything as personal and as homelike as possible … I’ve developed quite a close relationship with residents there. It’s actually very personal now, which is really the whole point.”
Knowles has been running similar programs in other communities for about 10 years now. “This program is actually just one of the many that I’m currently running,” she said.
Knowles, 35, has a hand in about a half-dozen other projects that engage the Island community. She works with students at the M.V. Charter School, overseeing a child welfare photography exhibit that connects Island kids to children in developing countries. She launched a pen pal program for the West Tisbury School, First Light Child Development Center, M.V. Center for Living, and Windemere. The program connects members of that community through letter writing. Knowles also runs a self-directed art workshop at different Island schools. She’s developing a project to educate vulnerable children in developing countries. This spring she’s piloting a nature photography program at Polly Hill Arboretum. In addition to all of this, Knowles is a professional photographer, picture framer, gallery manager, art curator, and teacher. She’s also part of the local film nonprofit Media Voices for Children.
Knowles is originally from England, and has only lived on the Island for about a year and a half. She lived in New York City from 2012 to 2017, where she trained at the Institute for Music and Health. She was an art director and a teaching artist. From 2008 to 2012, she lived in Australia, where she trained in elementary education with a focus on music engagement and the therapeutic uses of art and photography.
“I do believe we are inherently creative,” Knowles said. “But there is someplace where we are most easily able to release our creativity — whether that is through musicmaking or smudging charcoal on a piece of paper, painting, photography — we are all able to release creatively in a way that is helpful for the community.”
Knowles’ skill set sits somewhere at the corner of art, music, photography, writing, therapy, wellness, education, and community outreach. I asked her if there’s a name for it. “It’s just me,” Knowles said. “While I’ve tried to create an umbrella I can work under, it’s actually turned out that people just know my name.”
She believes that as an artist, photographer, and educator, she has a social responsibility to teach what she knows to encourage growth and creativity in others. “I’m not interested in just being an artist or a photographer,” Knowles said. “It’s necessary to pass on what we know to younger generations, as well as others.”