Bringing color to Newark seniors' lives

By Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger
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on June 30, 2015

Gladys Grauer instructs Barbara Talbot on different brush techniques. They are seniors who never learned to paint, but now they're getting lessons from one of their own. Gladys Grauer, 91, is showing them how to paint their canvass through a program Senior Art program that's designed to foster senior cognitive health and creativity. It's an eight week course that started earlier this month.

 

As they sketched, the geometric shapes  intersected with each other in no certain order.

Circles cut across triangles. Squares mixed with rectangles, overlapping one another. Later, watercolors brought life to their abstract pictures and the artwork they produced made these Newark senior citizens feel like little kids again.

 "I didn't think I would be able to do this again,'' says Osa Shelton, 70, her design taking on the characteristics of a prism.

The challenge keeps her mind clicking. And it's just what Dan Kaslow of Maplewood was looking for when the Newark Housing Authority let him set up SeniorStudio. The eight-week arts program doesn't allow seniors to slip into old age after they've settled into the rhythms of retirement.

Kaslow, a retired corporate consultant who works with nonprofit arts organizations, pitched the concept last year to Valerie Mason, a supervisor at J.C. White Manor, one of nine senior buildings operated by the NHA.

 Once housing officials bit, 18 seniors signed up. Now, a corner of the community room at the senior building is filled with easels and all sorts of art supplies. There are paints, brushes, palettes and palette knives. Books about art fill the lounge tables.


"We want to tap into people while they're still vibrant,'' Kaslow says. "Folks are acquiring a new skill and neuroscience research shows us that when you acquire a new skill, it has profound cognitive benefits.''

 He has no worries with this lively bunch. They have a spunky teacher, who lets them know they're not too old to learn.

Gladys Grauer is a 91-year-old artist, with history in Newark. She opened the first art gallery on Bergen Street and was an art teacher for 15 years. She continues to paint and show her works, some of which are outdoor murals throughout the city on buildings and walls. 

"What is it that they say? You can't teach an old dog new tricks,'' Grauer says. "That's not true.''

She has this class of her contemporaries believing they are just as good as she is, even though they have never painted – unless you count arts and crafts in grade school.

It's one thing to slap some paint on some paper, says Jean Smalls, but it's another to do it properly, alternating brush strokes from the flat side to the tip for different effects.

"We're using skills and learning how to put it on, and how to make it look better,'' says the 72-year-old Smalls. "You can see what're doing.''

It's only been three weeks and the studio is a hit with this crowd of budding artists, who are also learning things about themselves as they work in a genre that has been foreign to them since childhood. It's relaxing, but it keeps them moving, the one thing Shelton says is necessary when you get up in years.

 "I'm not going to stop,'' she says. "If you stop, that's it.''

Mary Golson, a 72-year-old retired hairdresser, is motivated. She says she has used many hair dyes in her day to color hair, but the arts education she's receiving has challenged her in ways she couldn't have imagined.

 "I never knew you could make so many colors from three primary colors,'' she says. "I'm getting to see a side of myself from a different point of view, because whatever I see in a picture or painting may not be what others see, and colors will bring it out.''

At one point, it's quiet in the class. All you see are heads lowered with fingers attached to pencils and brushes until Grauer peers in, smiling, giving instruction.

"Okay, that's very good, the way you superimposed your shapes,'' she says to Freddie Robinson.  "Now, you're going to tie these lines together.''

 This all new to Robinson, 76, who says he's more comfortable writing poetry. With this, he feels like he's in kindergarten, but he's enjoying himself.

Grauer has shifted gears, moving from Robinson, boosting someone else's confidence with encouragement as colorful as the geometric shapes being painted.

"You go girl,'' she says to Barbara Talbot, 87. 

"Maybe I'll be an artist,''  Talbot tells me.  "Who knows.''

At some point, Kaslow says the goal is to get their work featured in an exhibition at the Newark Museum. And when the course is over, Kaslow hopes to find sponsors to start another class and eventually expand it to other sites. He kicked in just under $5,000 to get the pilot going.

But what the class did last week was priceless. The beginners mastered a concept and created a piece of artwork that is now part of their portfolio.

It's a feeling that'll keep them and Grauer elated at least until tomorrow.

That's when class starts again.

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