“When I Paint, It Doesn’t Hurt”

Allan Appel PhotoA 50-year-old woman in care at Connecticut Hospice and dying from aggressive breast cancer discovered the healing power of art.

“When I paint,” she said, “it doesn’t hurt.”

Hers and other gripping stories of the vital role art plays or can play in your life, no matter your age or condition, unfolded at the annual meeting of the Interagency Council on Aging of South Central Connecticut.

About two dozen professionals in the field of aging gathered this past Thursday afternoon for their annual business meeting followed by stories from Dorothy Powers, Liz Pagano, and Tung Hoang, working artists with the Creative Arts Workshop and other New Haven organizations on the joys and challenges of doing art with elderly populations.

The three artists are in the middle of providing 20 weeks of classes each to self-selecting seniors such as Blanca Sangurima from Fair Haven’s Atwater Senior Center as well as from the East Shore and Dixwell/Newhallville senior centers.

Sangurima proudly displayed some of the clay pieces she made with Powers last week. She said she will turn the clay disc into a piece of personal jewelry in the style of ornaments women wear in her native Ecuador.

Powers, who was also for nine years the artist-in-residence at the Connecticut Hospice, said that her students’ responses at Atwater surprised and delighted her. (Click here for a story about a recent show by Powers, an award-winning artist, at Creative Arts Workshop, featuring women modeling wind-blown burkas.)

“Last Tuesday I got some air-dried clay. It’s what you give to kids, but I’m at heart a kid. I was expecting [the seniors would fashion] ashtrays and pots, but they absolutely flipped. They made little animals out of their imaginations,” she said.

Dixwell/Newhallville Senior Center’s visiting artist, Tung Hoang, said his biggest challenge in working art projects with older people is factoring in the motor and other physical disabilities into the sessions.

“I was taught an artist should sit up straight” and hold the canvas just so, a certain distance from the eye.

He wasn’t trained to work with people like Henry Stephen, one of his students. On order to see better and to maximize use his arms and hands, which sometimes shake, Stephen holds the canvas literally at arm’s length.

The result was beautiful, said Hoang, by training a printmaker and new media artist.

“Once you prepare [for physical challenges], the art comes naturally,” he added.

Both Hoang and East Shore Senior Center resident artist Liz Pagano—the former owner of the Marjolaine Pastry Shop on Upper State Street—said their students responded more naturally to painting subjects and forms they’re familiar with, like still life compositions.

Pagano said a particular challenge for her is teaching at a table in a large room where other tables of people are engaged in mahjong or knitting or poker, but “when you get them started, it works.”

Pagano and Hoang both said as the senior artists move into their work, it’s like hanging out with friends, albeit sometimes in a room that can become as noisy as a bus station, but then it all clicks, not only the art but another vital side benefit: camaraderie

“We talk about the week, and what they baked,” said Pagano, who still caters a big wedding cake or two out of her home.

The $7,000 grant from the Philip Marett Fund was for the pilot project for artists from Creative Arts Workshop to deploy to the city’s three senior centers.

The artists are now in the 15th week of their 20-week one-per-week sessions.

Former head of the city’s elderly services department, Pat Wallace, chaired the council’s meeting. A believer in the role of art in all its forms for seniors, Wallace said she hopes the meeting would be the first step in a region-wide initiative to do more with the elderly and the arts.

She volunteered to lead the effort even though the meeting was her last as she stepped down as head of the council, which elected Donna Fedus, of Borrow My Glasses LLC, as its new chair.

“Creativity in older people is critical emotionally, physically, in every way. It keeps the mind sharp,” added Powers. “It even helps with arthritis in the hands.”

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