Camden Seniors Rediscover Art Through Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts Program

By Tom McLaughlin

For Frank Ivey, a weekly activity in fiber arts was a great way to connect with nature all around him and to tap into “the craft and chemistry” of his work. His neighbor, Mandy Picon, saw it as a relaxing and fun way to stay busy with her neighbors. Meanwhile, for Rafael Daher, the activity has been a way to rekindle the love of art that he enjoyed in his youth.

These Northgate II residents are three of 45 older Camden adults who have tapped into their long-held creativity and rediscovered the joys of art making this fall through the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts’ participation in the Seeding Vitality Arts program.

The Rutgers University–Camden arts center earned a nearly $25,000 grant from Aroha Philanthropies – a partner of the nonprofit arts service organization Lifetime Arts – to participate in the initiative, which aims to enrich the lives of older adults through arts education.

Throughout the fall, older residents have participated in sequential art courses under the guidance of the RCCA’s visiting artists at three Camden sites: Northgate II Fair Share Housing Development, The Salvation Army Ray and Joan Kroc Community Center, and Respond Inc.’s adult day care center.

The 10-week courses, which included lessons on various types of art contained in Rutgers–Camden’s impressive collection, are now culminating in exhibitions celebrating the Camden residents’ work at their respective centers. Northgate II will host the last of these exhibitions at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 18, in the activities room.

“What impressed me a lot about this project was how we touched the lives of so many seniors,” says Carmen Pendleton, community and artist programs manager for the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts, who coordinated the program and oversaw it on a weekly basis. “It was heartwarming to see how they embraced the project. From the moment we sat down, it was a gift for me to have the opportunity to listen and see how much they were getting out of the experience, and how much they really enjoyed one another’s company.”

At all three locations, Anndee Hochman, a Philadelphia-based writer and teaching artist, worked with participants to write poetry sharing aspects of their personal lives.

At Northgate II, Dianne Hricko, a Philadelphia-based printmaker, painter, and teacher, taught participants the resist-dyeing method for applying images onto the fabric, and then Ylvia Asal, a Haddonfield-based mixed-media artist and teacher, showed them how to embroider their creations.

Ivey, a Philadelphia native, says that the activity allowed him to focus “on other things and other people.” Pincon, a native of Puerto Rico, echoed the sentiment, adding that it has been an ideal way to exercise her independence.

“It’s been very nice,” says Pincon, who worked for many years at an Italian restaurant in Philadelphia. “It keeps your mind very well occupied. I’m always doing something.”

Daher, a native of the Dominican Republic, notes the bonds that the program has helped form among neighbors.

“It has been very powerful, because it’s created more relationships between residents,” he says.

Asal, a New Jersey Council on the Arts Fellow, now plans to stitch the pieces – 12 panels in all – together to make a quilt that tells a story for the exhibition. She praised the participants, saying that, despite the majority of them lacking experience sewing or making anything from fabric before, they worked diligently to create amazing works.

“They are awesome,” says Asal, noting that she can see how “alive” the participants are in their work. “They are feeling stitch meditation and they understand that they still have ability – how to turn things into a piece of art.”

At the Kroc Center, visiting artist Hollis Citron of Cherry Hill taught participants various techniques of papermaking and printmaking. The adults then filled up the pages with their poetry, and the pages were pulled together to create books beautifully showcasing the different art techniques that they had utilized.

At Respond Inc.’s adult day care center, Marilyn Keating, a Gloucester City-based visiting artist, taught the participants various watercolor techniques. Some seniors then chose to adorn their watercolors with a word, sentence, or complete poem. Others chose to pen separate poems altogether.

“This program has been ideal,” says Noreen Scott Garrity, associate director of education for the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts. “Based on earlier programs that we have offered for older adults in the past, we knew that it would allow us to delve deeper and introduce various art forms to participants in a sequential, intense format. It has also allowed us to deepen our existing relationships with neighborhood centers that serve older Camden residents.”

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