Photos & Story by Sue Ann Rybak
Art by its very essence is ageless – humans have been expressing themselves through art since the beginning of time. A unique program sponsored by the Center for Emerging Visual Arts and NewCourtland Network uses art to bridge the age gap between seniors and young students.
For the past 10 weeks, about a dozen students from Project Learn School in Mt. Airy and residents of the Germantown Home met every Monday from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. to create artwork that will be displayed in an exhibit at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art community gallery in May. Later, the residents’ work will be permanently installed in Germantown Home.
Kyle Adams, an eighth grader at Project Learn Elementary School talked about his experience.
“I was worried that I would get frustrated with the elderly, but I learned how to be patient,” Adams said. “Annie was my partner. It was surprising to me that she was really, really artistic.
Adams added that Annie did most of the work – and “was funny, too.” His partner, Annie Burgess, 65, said she loved working with Kyle.
Burgess pointed to her artwork and showed me the pictures she and Adams agreed to put down. Glued to a wooden board, were pictures of flowers, a car, a bikini and a cat.
“I love cats,” Burgess said. “I used to have a cat named Peaches.”
Burgess added that she liked that they could decide what design to make.
“I liked that you could put [down] what you wanted,” Burgess said. “You have the free will of putting things down you choose to put down.”
Jill Galloway, who was one of the six artists selected to participate in the NewCourtland Artist Fellowship, said this was the first time she had ever done anything like this.
Galloway, a photographer and illustrator from Glenolden who designed the intergenerational art project, said the project at Germantown Home was an amazing experience because it showed “how art can bring happiness to everyone involved.”
The NewCourtland Artist Fellowship, now in its sixth year, is an intergenerational arts and cultural initiative that is designed to prevent “social isolation amongst seniors it serves while celebrating the talents and experiences of all generations” through a partnership with the Center for Emerging Visual Arts (CFEVA), whose mission is to advance the careers of visual artists by promoting relationships between artists and the communities in which they live and to increase access to visual art for everyone.
Galloway, who says she finds inspiration from nature and “beauty and purity in the unexpected,” said the concept for the project was to create a constructive landscape using various collage methods to create artwork from recycled material.
She said the goal of the project was to facilitate conversation about how the landscape has changed and how we view it. She said both students and seniors were encouraged to use their imagination to construct artwork that was not only personal but also a pleasure to illustrate from the mind to the hand.
Genevieve Coutroubis, regional community arts program director at the the Center for Emerging Visual Artists, said the the artwork really “serves as an ambassador.”
“Producing art in this way really can serve as a mouthpiece,” Coutroubis said. “It really represents the seniors who created the artwork. Every year, we hear staff say ‘wow, our seniors did this?’”
Galloway said the students and seniors really connected with each other and worked in teams to create the project for that day.
“It’s been very interesting to watch the dynamics especially after the first couple of weeks,” Galloway said.
She said some seniors were very artistic and definitely have an idea of what they wanted to accomplish in that hour, while other seniors really wanted the students to take the lead.
“The students are really sweet because they will suggest colors and cut out the paper,” Galloway said. “It’s really just about having fun with materials and making something together.”
Elizabeth Cacerez, recreation director at the Germantown Home, said the students were very respectful and accommodating to the seniors.
Prior to the workshop, both the artist and the students received sensitivity training. Coutroubis said the workshop helped students and the artist to understand the residents and the challenges they face on a daily basis.
She said simple things, like putting Vaseline on glasses, helped students understand and experience what it’s like to have cataracts. She said it helped kids understand why a resident might say something mean or not want to come to the activity.
Cacerez said all of the residents and students were very committed to coming to the project. She recalled how one resident, Esther Penn, 88, never wanted to miss the program because she loved working with the children.
“This was one of the best programs that we have had,” Cacerez said. “I know that we all enjoyed it. When everybody comes every week, it means they really enjoy it.”
Joan Fox, an art teacher at Project Learn who, along with Roni Anton, the school’s community coordinator, arranged Project Learn’s involvement in the program, said the project was an “example of the school’s philosophy of both using and contributing to the resources of the community.”
“We realized that this program fit perfectly with our own art program, which often involves groups of mixed ages,” Fox said. “This project really expanded our age range.”
Surya Bromley, an eighth grader at Project Learn, said it was fun to work with senior citizens.
“I learned that I have to be really patient when working with elders because sometimes it was difficult,” Bromley said.
Galloway shared her thoughts on the experience and said she hoped to do more intergenerational projects.
“What I learned from this experience is that the little things in life, like making art, can be healing and [art is] something that should be shared.”
Another Project Learn eighth grader, Elya Kaplan, said when she learned her partner Margaret always wanted to visit Israel, she realized it was an opportunity to share some of her experiences.
“Because I am from Israel, I could tell her all about it,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan said Margaret, who has grandchildren, was “very sweet and kind.” When asked what she learned from the experience Kaplan said, “I learned that elderly people have a way about them – an aura. They like working with kids because it keeps them young and vital.”
Artists who are interested in applying for CFEVA’s NewCourtland Artist Fellowship can go to cfeva.slideroom.com and follow the application instructions. The deadline for applications is April For more information about the fellowship call Genevieve Coutroubis at 215-546-7775 x 11.