As spring unfolds with cascading waves of color and intoxicating smells, a special garden took root in Poughkeepsie, NY last week. It was the work of 9 older women, residents of the Vassar-Warner home for seniors, whose paper collages reimagined the season just as the impressionists interpreted their world with paint.

(Click on images to enlarge.)

Vassar-Warner Garden

Joan Henry, the Artistic Director for Outreach Programs at Mill Street Loft — a 32 year-old organization merging the arts and social services — led the two-hour workshop, the first of six weekly sessions building on an earlier program that took place last winter. Despite some initial self-doubt and puzzlement, the women were excited to be back: several dived in with their green thumbs before Joan had even completed her introductory remarks.

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Judy models grass-colored sunglasses.

It might seem like light-hearted fun at best, but Joan had some sophisticated goals in mind for the morning: nurturing a connection to nature by bringing the outside in; expressing a concept by using randomly shaped pieces to form a defined whole; creating from feelings and internal states rather than attempting to reproduce external reality; re-creation of community by encouraging residents to communicate with and support each other through art; stimulating cognitive thinking and practicing motor skills.

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Joan Henry helps Judy.

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Judy’s collage began with squares of colored art tissue arranged in an open rectangle and
separated from each other by an inch or two. I saw it as an intriguing attempt
to reduce the form of a flower to its abstract essence — much as Mondrian did in his work 
and liked it a lot. To Judy, however, it made no sense: plants don’t look like that.
It was only after she brought the pieces together and it became more recognizable as an object that she was able to own and enjoy her creation.

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Often, it took only a small suggestion from one of us to coax out a missing element or embellishment. Carmen felt a bit lost until I suggested she add a golden stem to her sparkling flower ball.

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It wasn’t their intended purpose but many of the collage titles, chosen by the group while examining each other’s work, beautifully captured the program’s energy and spirit: Sunny Garden, Flower in the City, Rose’s Rose, Shiny Sparkle, Two Flowers in My Garden.

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