Seniors Connect to Community Through Art

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THE ART OF TEACHING — Instructor Steven Akira Beard, who has worked with Art With Elders for two years, helps a student. Beard is a professional artist whose work deals with culture and identity. photo by Vivien Kim Thorp/Nichi Bei Weekly

On the lower level of the San Francisco Main Public Library, 90 pieces of the art — ranging in subject from portraits of the President and playful renditions of animals to colorful abstracts and peaceful landscapes — line the white walls. There are paintings in watercolor and acrylic; sketches done in pen, pencil and even crayon. As disparate as the imagery may seem, they are united by a single thread: each of these pieces was created by an artist over the age of 65, and each of these artists calls a Bay Area long-term care facility home.

The 18th annual “Celebrating Art With Elders” exhibit, which opened on Jan. 9, will be on display in the library’s Jewett Gallery through Feb. 20. It highlights the work of participants in Art With Elders (AWE) — a program established by the nonprofit Eldergivers, which offers art classes in 33 Bay Area long-term care facilities. These seniors — more than half of who had never previously picked up a brush — take weekly art classes taught by a professional artist. The program provides the materials and instructors, and the participants create whatever they like.

The introduction to this year’s exhibit reminds visitors: “In a highly developed society such as ours — fast paced, technically advanced and often youth focused — it is all too easy to overlook the rich and various contributions of seniors.” Each piece of art is framed alongside a black-and-white photo of the artist and a few paragraphs about his or her life.

It takes a while to read them all, but one would be remiss to skip these details. Nestled among watercolors of whales’ tails and penciled portraits, are stories of migration, immigration and even escape. The people behind the paintings, though all Bay Area residents, trace their roots to places as far away as Singapore and New York and as close as Marin and the North Beach neighborhood. During their lifetimes, they were surgical nurses, factory workers, medical technicians and skycaps at San Francisco International Airport. And they share stories of family visits, husbands and wives, rural life, the Great Depression, paralysis and missing home.

Shirley Middleton’s “The First Couple” is a whimsical and simplistic portrait of two figures, representing Barack and Michelle Obama. They stand, featureless yet unmistakable, in front of a rough, squiggly lined rendition of the American flag. In complete contrast, Grace Ho’s meticulously rendered goldfish hover in the water beneath a bough of purple petals. In her bio, Middleton, a resident of Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, calls herself a “writer who loves to paint.” While Ho, a former volunteer for the library who now lives at the Western Park Apartments, also in SF, talks of her “lifelong love of painting.”

Several of the paintings are exhibited posthumously. Elisabeth Pavel of the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville, Calif., passed away before she could see her piece framed. Pavel, who had lost her father in a concentration camp, moved to Austria during the Hungarian revolution, then New York and, eventually, California. Her detailed and beautiful “Mona Lisa, I would like to know more about you,” is a pencil rendition of da Vinci’s most famous masterpiece.

Brent Nettle, the executive director of Eldergivers, first started the AWE exhibit in 1991, after being inspired by senior artwork he saw hanging on a nursing home’s walls. Until this point, Eldergivers had been focused on bringing volunteers from the community inside long-term care facilities — where as much as 60 percent of residents receive no visitors each year. “I thought, it’s great we can go into nursing homes,” says Nettle, “but how can we turn this around and get people in nursing homes out into the community?”

The first few exhibits were curated with pieces made in art therapy classes at five nursing homes. It met with great response, exhibiting at venues such as Grace Cathedral and the de Young Museum.

The program continued to evolve, moving its focus from art therapy to art education. “We decided that products of art therapy classes were not going to be as attractive as what could be made in classes taught by professional artists,” says Nettle.

Eldergivers started hiring professional, exhibiting artists as its instructors — people who took their art very seriously. The results, he says, is art that is better and more individualistic.

For the AWE exhibit, instructors pick two to three paintings from seniors who wish to participate. Then a panel chooses which ones will go on display.

Steven Akira Beard is one of the AWE’s instructors. Every Tuesday he teaches a class at the Nineteenth Avenue Healthcare Center in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset District. “Art offers a way for them to forget about harsh realities in their lives, whether physical or mental,” says Beard, a professional painter who teaches fashion illustration and fine art painting at the Academy of Art University. “We just try to create the environment. We give the materials and encouragement and then let them create what they want.”

Ho Cheung Chung is one of Beard’s students and a regular contributor to the annual show. “I like to paint people,” Chung says. “Also mountains and water.” A stroke has left him more reliant for sight, sound and speech on the right side of his body. And in many of his paintings, vibrant colors, so present on the right side of the paper, disappear, leaving bare outlines, like ghosts, fading as the eye moves left.

Chung, who had an acupuncture practice in San Francisco, also enjoys painting poems in Chinese calligraphy. “One poor person but their mind not poor,” he says, translating his latest work.

AWE artwork is posted all around the center’s activity room — framed pieces from previous exhibits, as well as newer paintings tacked up on the activity room’s wall and hanging from a display. Louise Effman, whose “Golden Fish in Black Sea” is in this year’s exhibit, has many among them. She likes to paint watercolors as therapy for her arthritis and is currently working on a painting inspired by a picture from a calendar.

“I never did art before I came here,” says Effman, a stroke victim who, though once right-handed, has learned to paint with her left. “Now it’s going on four years.” Originally from Arizona, the 78-year-old member of the Papago tribe moved to Northern California to join her sister in 1955. The sister soon married and returned to Arizona, but Effman stayed, finding work as a housekeeper. “I figured I would stay two more years,” she says, filling in a treetop with bright strokes of green paint, “but I never did go back.”

“Celebrating Art With Elders” is free and open to the public during library hours. Several events are scheduled in tandem with the exhibit, including screenings of documentaries, workshops and lectures on seniors and art. Call (415) 557-4277 or go to http://sfpl.lib.ca.us/news/exhibitions.htm for details. For more information about Eldergivers, call (415) 441-2650 or visit www.eldergivers.org.

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