Young at HeART
- story and photos by Karen Fineran
“All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once one grows up.”
Attributed to Pablo Picasso.
Are you an over-sixty practicing or burgeoning artist, aspire to become one, are looking for a hobby, want to meet new people, or learn about art? If not yourself, do friends or loved ones come to mind?
Since the first year of its existence, the Senior Center has operated an arts program for its seniors, providing instruction and materials for a variety of arts and crafts, including oil and acrylic painting, ceramics, quilt-making, crocheting, and various seasonal crafts. The program is run with county funds, funds from Bay St. Louis and Waveland, donations of supplies and materials from private donors, and typically a small donation (usually $1 per month per class) from participating seniors. The class instructors are Senior Center staff members and outside volunteers.
At least one long-time program participant has been involved in the Senior Center since its inception. Artist Theresa James, a Galveston native, moved from New Orleans to Bay St. Louis shortly after Hurricane Camille, and fell hard for the Gulf Coast. From 1972 to 1985, she was the Director of the Center’s RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer Program). After her retirement from that position, she had the time to begin taking the Center’s art classes herself – the first art classes of her life. She dove into the oil painting classes given by her mentor, instructor Carl Baldenhofer (now deceased). Looking up at a painting of Baldenhofer in the studio, James spoke appreciatively of his talent, winsomely recalling how he had inspired her in her painting and taught her the oil techniques that became part of her distinctive style.
James paints colorful folk art depictions of jazz funerals, shrimp boats, cotton fields, and other iconic southern and New Orleans images. In earlier years, as a member of ARTS, Hancock County, James sold her paintings throughout Bay St. Louis galleries and sometimes in New Orleans. While James says that she no longer paints (as of the last several months), items of her work are displayed at Maggie May’s Gallery in Bay St. Louis. James’ favorite painting (sold long ago) is her “Blue Roofs,” which she painted of the tableau of vivid blue-tarped roofs in Bay St. Louis just after Hurricane Katrina.
Today, her beautiful oil paintings of the natural wildlife of the Gulf Coast, such as the heron and pelican shown below, are incredible in their likeness to life and their intricate attention to detail. Though her paintings are not currently for sale, some of them have been displayed at the Mandeville Craft Show, and two more of them will be displayed there in October.
Other seniors at the Center can be found chatting amiably around tables, amid piles of cloth squares, bent over their quilts and crocheting, or pouring clay slip into molds, or painting whimsical green-ware forms for ceramic firing.
Arlene Johnson, the Hancock County Senior Center Director since 2001, has been with the Center since 1983, when she started as Program Specialist and ceramics instructor. A certified ceramics teacher, airbrush artist and porcelain doll instructor, and an avid painter herself, Johnson has been involved in the arts most of her life.
The arts program at the Center, Johnson explained, is important to the seniors because it is the fulcrum of their social life and gives them the quality of life and companionship that they may not necessarily enjoy at home. The seniors enjoy seeing their friends at the Center every day, working on projects together, dining together, and often giving the art pieces that they make as gifts to their family, friends and caregivers.
In a breathtaking story, Johnson described the days and weeks after she had decided to ride out the storm at the Center so that she could be on hand if anyone needed her. Though the seniors themselves were evacuated before the storm arrived, a large number of people from the surrounding neighborhoods swarmed into the Center as the flood waters rose. The flood waters rose to the top of the back door step but did not infiltrate the building. In the following days, police cars and school buses began dropping more and more people off at the Center to seek shelter.
For weeks, more than 170 people from all over the county, including very aged seniors, other adults, children, teenagers and babies, crowded into the small hallways and rooms of 601 Bookter Street, sleeping on the bare floors, and waiting in desperation for food, ice, blankets, clothing, Pedialite and other supplies that were dropped off sporadically by volunteers. Soaked and frightened survivors who had been rescued from the flood waters were dropped off at the center wearing only rags, and sometimes still the ropes that had saved them. The building had electricity because of its generator, but the toilets could only be flushed by occupants with bags and buckets of the flood water from outside. The Center’s van was taken out periodically to drive around town foraging for food, supplies and other survivors.
For eighty-eight days, the Senior Center served as a makeshift shelter in this fashion, until other places were found for the exhausted inhabitants. Within that timeframe, within the first three months after the storm and before the refugees had moved out, the Center resumed its function of providing hot meals, art classes, transportation, recreation, and shelter to the seniors during the daytime hours. The staff simply was not going to let the seniors go without the encouragement and support they needed during what must have been for many the hardest time of their lives.
The Hancock County Senior Center is located at 601 Bookter Street, at the corner of Old Spanish Trail and Bookter, and is open Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The program is open to all residents of Hancock County who are 60 or over and who are self-sufficient. (Johnson pointed out that even temporary residents in Hancock County, such as those who may be staying with family or friends here for a few months, are welcomed.) Volunteers are also welcomed if they are interested in teaching classes or otherwise assisting the program. For more information, call the Senior Center at 228-467-9292 or pop in at 601 Bookter to ask about signing up.