Our second sumi-e brush painting workshop  at the Vassar-Warner home produced an impressive collection of drawings by the residents who participated. Gone were the hesitation and fear that greeted the technique when first introduced two weeks earlier; instead, everyone dived in as if they were doing it all their lives — which was a pretty long time for some of them!

(Click on images to enlarge.)

Charlotte Painting_734

Charlotte begins working.

Ninety-seven year-old Rose led the way, cranking out drawing after drawing of exuberant flower arrangements:

Rose Admiring Painting_721

Rose Collection

When I asked if she wanted to paint anything other than flowers,


this was her answer:

I Love Nature_782


Mike continued to work in the abstract, doing the paintings below in quick succession. I was struck by the difference between them: triangular shapes and fading, angular lines in the first; bold, curvilinear strokes in the second. (An ElderSparks round of applause to any intuitive or art maven out there who can identify a well-known 20th-century painting that Mike’s piece on the right reminds me of :)



No one, not even Judy, could tell what her subject was until Mike made the call from the opposite end of the table:

Coffee Cup_791

Judy’s hot cup of coffee.


At one point I asked Jennifer if she could do a sumi-e portrait of me, thinking it would be helpful for the others to see how a gifted painter approached an assignment similar to theirs. Except for the house on top of my head — Jennifer’s signature touch — we all agreed it was a pretty good likeness. On the right is an image of TK, our teenage assistant who was so jealous of my portrait that she asked Jennifer to do one of her.

TK and AG

It’s interesting to me that none of the other students wanted their own portraits done. Were they too self-conscious about their aging looks? Too preoccupied with their own work? Afraid, perhaps, that it wasn’t appropriate for them to make such a request? I’m sorry now that I didn’t follow up with them at the time.


Jennifer had brought art papers and skewers for making scrolls, and that’s what we did for the second hour. Framing the residents’ paintings this way raised their work to another level by placing it in the context of a centuries-old, highly refined tradition. This is part of what we do as teaching artists, shaping and structuring our students’ creative output in one form or other. To me, it’s one of the most precious gifts we give these elders — showing them how capable and productive they still are, what beauty emanates from their self-expression, and what heights they can yet achieve. In effect, it’s like holding a mirror before them that doesn’t permit any self-deception or doubt.


Charlotte's Scroll_771

Charlotte’s scroll reminded me of a giant sequoia. When I mentioned it to the group, it elicited memories of trips to the west coast redwoods some had taken earlier in their lives.


Elaine's Scroll_763

Elaine’s scroll.


Joanne's Scroll_765

Joanne’s scroll captures the feel of an Asian landscape painting.


Judy's Scroll_775

Judy added a mouth and set of eyes in the upper portion of this painting so viewers would understand it was a picture of a snake.


Mike's Scroll_757

This scroll depicts Mike’s last name, Rock. By choosing not to arrange the letters more logically from top to bottom, Mike added an enigmatic quality to his artwork. I also love what he’s done with the light gray figures on the left that complete their rows and column without making the balance overly static. At first glance, they could pass for letters too.


Rose's Scroll_773

We end as we began. Rose’s piece breaks new ground in scroll ornamentation by placing an angled, colored paper strip across the drawing itself. Would we expect anything less from a 97 year-old woman who said she would stand on her head when she turned 100!