Debbie Stevens, 69, of Northeast Philadelphia, with her piece, “Best Senior Friend.” Stevens’ artwork was just one of 49 pieces that were on display at Center on the Hill for Philadelphia Corporation for Aging’s 17th Annual Celebrate Arts and Aging Festival. (Photo courtesy of Debbie Stevens)

by Sue Ann Rybak

Despite dark skies threatening rain last Wednesday night, people packed the Center on the Hill, 8855 Germantown Ave., on May 29, to see some of the beautiful pieces of artwork in the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging’s 17th Annual Celebrate Arts and Aging Festival.

Held during Older Americans Month, the festival highlights art work by 162 artists that range in age from 55 to 102. Works are exhibited at three sites, Center on the Hill, City Hall, and West Philadelphia Senior Community Center, and include paintings, drawings, ceramics, jewelry, fabric art, mixed media and photography.

In a statement, Holly Lange, PCA president and CEO, said the purpose of festival was “to showcase the outstanding work of senior artists and encourage older people to experience the wealth of artistic possibilities” available in Philadelphia.

“Older adults continue to grow and develop as they age and have extraordinary talent and wisdom to contribute,” she said. “We also know that staying active and engaged is one of the keys to healthy aging, and the arts specifically have been shown to have a broad range of physical, mental and emotional benefits.”

Najja Orr, PCA’s chief strategy officer, welcomed attendees and said this year’s theme for Older Americans Month was “Connect, Create and Contribute.” Orr said he couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate than to see some of the beautiful pieces of art done by older adults in the center.

He said that even though Celebrate Arts and Aging only ran until the end of May, thanks to senior centers and other community centers that offer art classes and workshops every month, Older Americans can enjoy the arts year-round.

Joe Clayback, marketing director for Always Best Care Services, said a lot of the art work on display had to be encouraged. He said many people don’t have the opportunity to take an art class or express themselves through the arts, until they “retire or have a little less responsibility in their life.” Clayback urged businesses and other community members to continue to support art [and other enrichment] programs at senior centers.

Mt. Airy resident David Greene said he believed everyone should have “an art experience.” Greene, a retired Philadelphia school district art teacher, taught art at Jenks Academy of the Arts and Sciences after he retired when the art and music programs were gutted due to budget cuts.

Mt. Airy resident David Greene, 70, a retired Philadelphia school district art teacher, whose son attended J.S. Jenks Academy for the Arts and Sciences in Chestnut Hill, with his photo: “Chase Utley.” (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

“You don’t have to be a certain age to do art, you just have to be willing to do it,” he said. “Art is something that is drawn on from past experience.

“In the 35 years I taught art, I never told anybody that they did lousy work, because that is not the nature of art,” he said. “We want to encourage young people to do art and the same goes for older people. That is why this show is excellent, because it is for people 55 and older.

“You don’t just stop doing artwork. You continue. Nobody realizes that a 90-year-old person or a 100-year-old person can do artwork. Sure, we can, and we do. And this is one way of saying that older people have many talents.”

Greene added that you have to do art to make you happy. For decades, his father didn’t like his art work until a few years before he died. Greene said initially, he began to question himself. Until he realized, it wasn’t his art work. It was just his father’s perspective of his artwork. There was no good or bad.

“You don’t have to do your artwork to please your husband, your wife or your children,” he said. “People should do art to make themselves happy.”

Debbie Stevens, 69, of Northeast Philadelphia, agrees. Stevens, a former horticultural therapist, who describes herself as shy recently took her first sketching class at KlineLife in the northeast.

The title of her piece is “Best Senior Friend.” It’s a portrait of her friend Barry.

“It’s the first portrait I ever did,” she said. “To me, it looks a bit rough. It makes me happy that he really likes it. Everybody said, ‘it captures his emotion.’”

Stevens was actually traveling to Illinois for a wedding when the deadline for submitting the application and photograph to PCA was approaching. She recalled going to Walgreens and asking the associate to help her scan the portrait.

“I really wanted to do this,” she said. “I never had the opportunity to participate in an art show with other artists and other seniors. I feel I have come to a stage in my life where really it’s been a joy. I am so glad that I reached out to do this art class. It’s been so good for me emotionally. And I have gotten all this positive feedback about my work. I am so thankful.

Recently, Stevens hung the picture of the portrait in her apartment and said she felt “this wonderful sense of pride inside.”