Published November 12, 2001, Pawtucket Times
The painting of large colorful murals not only brightened up the lobby area, the main hall, and the lunchroom’s blank white walls but sparked the interest for art among seniors at Providence’s Westminster Senior Center.
Last week, the budding artists along with their admirers gathered in the Center’s 1,000 square foot basement to show off their artistic works (created with charcoal, pastels, colored pencils and acrylic paints), all produced during 20 art classes held over a 10 month period..
Providence resident Natalie Austin, 69, a former legal secretary who now works part-time at the Westminister Senior Center as a receptionist, had little exposure to the arts. Courses taken in elementary and high school, an art history course at Brown University, along with some attempts to paint her summer home in Maine, summed up Natalie’s life experience in the arts in one sentence.
Austin, a graduate of Brown University who rallied the seniors at the Center to support the offering of art lessons, knew that it would become a popular program. While not wishing to replace the late Grandma Moses, an American painter who in her late 70s began to paint, Austin paints for her own pleasure and that of others, she says.
One of Austin’s class assignments was to draw a picture with charcoal using the elements of Van Gogh’s famous painting, “The Starry Night.” The drawing of a bag and straw hat were done fairly fast,Austin admits, noting that the swirling lines and distinct outlines of the Van Gogh masterpiece are incorporated into her work.
Another class assignment, using a landscape painting drawn by Pierre Bonnard-Ford, taught Austin the proper way to mix and use colors. Her colorful drawing, using blues and oranges, followed her instructors assignment of copying the French artist’s palette while painting another subject.
While pleased with the quality of the art work she has produced in the art classes,Austin quips, “There’s always room for improvement. I am always competing with myself, trying to improve.”
Meanwhile, other lessons are learned besides the technical skills of mixing paint or sharpening charcoal pencils. “Art gives you insight into what people are like,”Austin says, noting that it also reveals their values too.
Professional artists Pierre Lamuniere-Ford, his wife Jenny Booth and Jen Iwasyk were able to develop this unique art program for seniors which included the purchase art supplies, courtesy of a $5,000 grant from the state’s Department of Elderly Affairs.
Much thought was put into creating the curriculum for each class, Lamuniere-Ford told All About Seniors.
The instructors, all in their 30s, taught basic drawing techniques, from gesture to realistic drawing, along with color mixing to their older students.
“When classes began it was hard to get people to get past their self doubts that they could become artists,” Lamuniere-Ford said. “We worked very hard to dislodge the myth that you are [born] immediately talented, he added..
According to Lamuniere-Ford, his students learned that art should not always be viewed as a pretty picture. “Art can be disturbing and not pretty to see,” he says, noting that it can reflect one’s soul or a person’s state of mind.
Additionally, the students were able to use art to help them learn more about each other. More important, he says, “they became less critical of self and of others.”
Executive Director Marianela Dougal, of the Westminster Senior Center, acknowledges that she is not an artist, but views herself as an art lover. She believes that art classes at her Center provide seniors with an avenue to express themselves and to be creative, giving them an opportunity to gain a sense of well being.
Adds Rachel Filinson, Ph.D., Coordinator of Gerontology Program at Rhode Island College, research findings indicate that creativity extends into the later years. “People who are artists their whole life continue to be very prolific in producing quality work as they did in their earlier years,” she says.
“Anything that is stimulating will promote both your mental and physical health,” adds Filinson.
Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket, Rhode Island-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. This article appeared in the November 12, 2001 issue of the Pawtucket Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.