A Sumi-e Galleri-e

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.

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Sumi-e, Sumi-e, What Can You Do Me?**

The Vassar-Warner home in Poughkeepsie, NY was the setting two weeks ago for a workshop devoted to sumi-e brush painting. It was led by Jennifer Axinn-Weiss, a Mill Street Loft teaching artist and expressive arts therapist, who was filling in for MSL’s Artistic Director for Outreach Programs, Joan Henry.

Sumi-e was first developed in China almost 1500 years ago. Jennifer thought that its focus on the natural world, and interest in capturing the essence of a subject with spontaneity and as few strokes as possible, would be a good follow-up to our previous spring sessions. As an added bonus, sumi-e painting has a calming, peaceful energy associated with eastern meditative traditions.

If ever there was a need for such energy, it manifested before class even started. Residents drifted in while we were still setting up, and Rose, the 97 year-old woman who announced last week she would stand on her head to celebrate her 100th birthday, started having an anxiety attack. She couldn’t hear what was being said around the table and thought she was missing important instructions. Speaking directly to her in a loud voice from a close distance didn’t help either, so I communicated with her through writing and suggested she just be patient until class began and everything would become clear. That, together with a hand on her shoulder and the presence of TK, our teenage assistant, beside her, brought comfort. From then on, she took to sumi-e like an old pro and produced one drawing after another — even adding color and sparkles as the morning progressed.

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Send in the Clowns

Last Thursday’s Mill Street Loft program at the Vassar-Warner home — a mobile-making project with spring as its theme — reinforced for me why I’ve liked working with the residents here. In addition to being so open and appreciative, they share lots of laughs. Their humor is all the more remarkable for its appearance amidst frailty, cognitive decline, and physical ailments. Does the art making help these seniors transcend their challenges, or does it mostly attract those who already have that propensity? I suspect it’s some of both.

Perhaps I should do more research with Rose, who’ll turn 100 in three years. When Donna, Vassar-Warner’s activities supervisor, asked how she anticipated celebrating her centennial birthday, she replied with a grin: “By standing on my head.” Rose, btw, completed stage one of her mobile before anyone else.

Admiring Rose's Mobile Efforts_802

(l-r): Mike, Rose, and Joan admire Rose’s mobile efforts.

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Garden Atelier

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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Something to Keep in Mind

A friend just sent me this beautiful story:

A few years ago, when he was quite old & frail, I heard Krishnamurti address a large assembly. He spoke in his accustomed softness & care for a few minutes before calling on a guy who had raised his hand with a question. Krishnamurti answered slowly, then stopped & began again, then stopped again. He said his aging had caused him to be less sharp & would the fellow just come down & hold his hand. It was a teaching for us all that some day all that might be left of us is our love.

Stephen Levine

To which I might add: Why wait till then?

The Power of Art

Of all the articles and commentary about the tragic killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School that I read, none touched me as personally as a recent CNN.com story about the McDonnell family who lost their 7 year-old daughter Grace.

“The McDonnells were overcome when they first saw Grace’s white casket at the funeral home. ‘You felt like the floor was falling out beneath you and your breath was taken away,’ [Grace’s mother, Lynn,] said.

“But then, they pulled out Sharpies of all colors and began drawing: peace signs, ice cream cones, lighthouses, sea gulls [on the coffin]. The family said it looked like it was covered in graffiti by the time they were done.

“[They] also brought Grace’s favorite pocketbook, seashells, hair bows and flip-flops, as well as her sunglasses and a frying pan. Her father placed his New York Yankees cap with her. Grace loved Taylor Swift and Kenny Chesney — the family gave her music from both.

“‘When we left, we were like: She’s fully stocked,’ her mom recalled. ‘It was like we had joy again.’”


It reminded me of how I passed the time at my mother’s bedside in a hospital and hospice during her last six weeks of life: turning to art as a way to make her final days more meaningful for both of us. Inspired by their daughter’s passion for painting and drawing, the McDonnells drew upon their own creativity to stay connected to Grace and support her with all their love. A lack of artistic talent might have deterred others, but it brought this family even closer to the child they  lost — as revealed in this Anderson Cooper interview (6:45 mark):


NOTE: If you have the fortitude, read the comments that accompany the above video. Apparently, there are some citizens who consider the McDonnell’s composure yet another sign that the elementary school murders were a government/mass media hoax.  

My Pet Leaf v.2

Our second annual My Pet Leaf event took place Thanksgiving weekend at a New Jersey home for seniors with Alzheimer’s. The dozen or so residents who participated were met on arrival by a tableau of seed heads, fallen leaves, dried wasp nests, bark, husks, plumes, etc. — the bounty of local forests and meadows. Together, we spent the first few minutes touching and examining these oddly beautiful botanical specimens, and marveling at their shapes and coloration.

Fall Harvest_004

Through the alchemy of stick-on eyes, brightly colored foam stickers, and (last-but-not-least) our own imaginations, we then created new life forms which were given personal names and studied for their highly idiosyncratic behaviors. Oliver, we learned, had a home in the woods by the beach and really enjoyed meeting and talking with people. The elongated head of another creature was easily mistaken for a tree under which a completely different animal lived.

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