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Expressing creativity in elder years with training by art professionals

Sun, 30 Sep 2012 16:40:00
5 / 5 (1 Votes)
Article by:
Loraine Burger
Nationally, and here in the Bay Area, more than 60 percent of elders who live in long-term care facilities never have a visitor, according to the Eldergivers website at http://www.eldergivers.org/about-us/.

Eldergivers was created in 1985, originally as a faith-based effort to reconnect elders in nursing home residences with their communities by beginning a visitor’s program. Their mission was to stop the isolation of elders and the negative effects that occur as a result — such as an increase of illness and shortening of lifespan.

Three years after joining the organization, Executive Director Brent Nettle founded the Art with Elders — AWE — program in 1991. Since then, the organization has gradually parted from their religious ties, and has seen many programs come and go as the budget permitted. Today, AWE is the only surviving program of Eldergivers — celebrating its 21st annual “Art with Elders Exhibit,” with a gala reception for the artists and their families, at the Mission Bay Conference Center on September 23.

The San Francisco Arts Commission will also install the 21st annual “Art with Elders” exhibit on Oct. 3 at City Hall, and the exhibit will remain there for public viewing until Jan. 4, 2013.

“[Eldergivers] had five programs in 2008,” said Nettle. “It was getting difficult to raise funds for them all, so we decided to keep the art program because it was very mission-effective. It fulfills their wisdom, talent, and creativity. It has a wonderful way of connecting the elders with other people.”

Currently 32 facilities host the art classes in five counties around the Bay Area. The facilities include assisted living, nursing homes, independent living, skilled nursing, and long-term care units.

“With aging people, they can lose impairment, lose motor skills, have worsening eye sight, but they can still paint,” said Program Coordinator Lilli Antonoff.

Francis and Juliana Li, a Chinese husband and wife who moved to the Western Park Apartments in the Western Addition in 2006, started attending the art class together when they moved into the senior housing facility.

Francis Li, who was formerly a softball coach and employee of the Postal Service, had never picked up a paintbrush before AWE. Today, he uses a walker as a result of a lower back surgery, and attends the two-hour art class where he follows the style of French impressionist Claude Monet. “It’s incredible! He’s one of our most prolific artists now,” commented Antonoff about Li’s work.

There are 18 professional art instructors working with elders each week, each holding at the minimum a degree of Bachelor of Fine Arts — BFA — and many with a Master of Fine Arts degree — MFA. The majority of art students are 65 years old, or older, however, some facilities housing younger disabled members make exceptions to this general rule. The financial requirements for the class also vary greatly depending on an individual’s financial status.

Eldergivers is a nonprofit organization that is funded mostly by individuals; however, it also receives contributions from the San Francisco Arts Commission, the California Arts Council, and from corporate support.

The AWE classes are small, usually hosting between three and twelve students. “The connections they have with themselves is primary,” said Nettle. “When they first join the class they have a lot of choices to make. It gets them thinking about themselves. They become alert and mentally focused. It’s therapeutic, in a sense. It’s very rare that friendships are made at that age, but here they’re socializing with each other, critiquing each other.”

“Art cuts all language and cultural barriers,” Antonoff stated.

Rafael Vieira — an art instructor who has been with AWE for almost five years — focuses on getting to know his students, as early as their first class. “I sit right next to them and have a conversation,” said Vieira. “I ask what they used the last time they made an art project — for many of them that means elementary school — and I have them start with that, whether its markers, crayons, chalk; it comes naturally.”

Residents have the opportunity to use pastels, watercolors, oils, charcoal, acrylic, collage and many other mediums. It is planned to expand the art room at Western Park to provide even more supplies.

In celebration of the 75th anniversary, one of Vieira’s classes is currently working on paintings and sketches of the Golden Gate Bridge. “Mitch Miller and the Gang” often plays in the background as the students are hard at work.

“[The program] gives them a voice when age restricts them,” said Vieira. “The idea that old dogs can’t learn new tricks isn’t true. This isn’t just to kill time. They want to push their work; develop their technique.”

Vieira said that many things that have brought him to working within the elderly community. It was his grandfather who first taught him how to draw, and then a professor and mentor who showed him art and social practices could work together.

“Every student is different, depending on their age and their background. Students in their 80s and 90s lived through the depression where they were told not to make art. Some students had parents who were slaves and were taught not to embrace art,” said Vieira.

Juliana Li, who grew up in China and lived during the Cultural Revolution, recalled that soldiers would destroy all the flowers in her village by hacking them down. This memory is what keeps her painting flowers and rose gardens using watercolors and acrylics in class.

“There’s a sense of community, sharing their work and seeing each other progress,” said Antonoff. “Even the people who live in these communities and don’t participate in the class look forward to the art being displayed around the building. It’s gone from an art class to a community of artists.”

Once a year, five art professionals choose about 90 artists from AWE to have their work displayed in an exhibit. This year, the exhibit will feature 92 artists at City Hall. After a period of time the exhibit travels, and the art is viewed by an estimated 40,000 people throughout the year. The art pieces are displayed alongside a black and white photo of the artist and a short biographical sketch — which, according to Nettle, tends to receive as much attention as the art itself.

“When their art is on display, they are still a part of the community. If they have family, the family can see that they’re building skills, and they’re proud. They are more engaged with their elders. It’s a great opportunity to mix generations,” said Nettle.

These art exhibits have been displayed previously at the Herbst International Exhibition Hall, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, City Hall, the de Young Museum, the San Francisco Art Institute, the Main Library, the War Memorial Opera House, and the di Rosa Preserve in Napa, amongst many other places. “Most of [the artists] can’t go out anymore,” said Vieira. “With this class they feel like they belong to a club. And it’s a very cool club.”

More information about the Art with Elders program can be found at http://www.eldergivers.org/art-with-elders/. Information about the program can also be obtained by sending an email to info@eldergivers.org, or by calling 415.441.2650.

Expressing creativity in elder years with training by art professionals
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