Portraiture students explore the contours of their elderly models' lives

May 1, 2013


An ongoing art project that pairs octogenarians with high school students is honing nascent painterly skills and promoting intergenerational understanding, respect and friendship.

The portrait project — a collaboration between Youville House, an assisted living residence in Cambridge, Mass., that is part of Covenant Health Systems, and nearby Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School — is the brainchild of teacher Elizabeth Menges. A skilled artist in her own right, Menges, 30, was inspired to create the project after a chance meeting with one of Youville's residents, retired commercial artist Jeanne Eckwall.

"One of the things I stress in my portrait class is the importance of the interaction between subject and artist," explains Menges. "I enjoyed getting to know Jeanne so much that I thought it would be an interesting opportunity to pair my students with older people as well. That way, they could not only learn how to apply technical art skills to a practical environment, but also be exposed to oral history lessons in the process."

When Menges approached Katie Blanchard, director of programs at Youville House, with her idea, she received an enthusiastic response.

"We're always looking for new activities that we think will be of interest to our residents," Blanchard explains. "We offer many classes, from tai chi and nurturing newborns to current events discussions and film clubs, but this portrait project added another dimension — a way for us to connect with our community."

Menges began using the semester-long project as part of her curriculum in the fall of 2011, pairing two students per volunteer resident based on interests and personalities.

The project consists of several weekly meetings, at which the aspiring artists interview the seniors and produce a series of sketches and studies on portable drawing boards. The students gather reference images, taking photographs — often in the resident's apartment. After that, they work for several weeks in the school's studio to synthesize their work into two portraits — a line drawing transferred to stretched canvas and then a full-color acrylic painting. At the end of the term, the portraits are hung at a formal art show at Youville, complete with a reception for models, artists, residents, families and friends.

The most recent partnership between Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School and Youville House culminated in a late winter portrait show. Among the guests were residents Ralph Chapman, who posed for students Emily Hays and Herol Pires, and Jeanne Eckwall, who modeled for Cameron Lindsay and William Bernard Rubio.

Eckwall, 89, has lived at Youville for more than 6 years. In addition to being the inspiration for the project, she has been an enthusiastic participant for three out of four semesters.

Portrait of the artist
"I've been an artist all of my life, so I want to support these kids by being a model," says Eckwall, who suffered a transient ischemic attack that has impaired her speech and some of her motor skills. "I can't draw anymore because my fingers don't work very well, so this is a way I can still stay connected to art."

Rubio, 17, admits he was a little worried at first about relating to Eckwall, but soon learned to appreciate her independence and sense of humor.

"Once I could understand Jeanne's speech, I realized she had some really sassy comments to make. I only have one grandmother and I only see her in the summertime, so it was really nice to talk to an older person and learn how she lived her life," he says. "Her place is filled with art; she must have 50 paintings in her one-bedroom apartment, including her own work, Japanese work, even a stuffed crow in her bathroom! What I really admire about her most, though, is that she encouraged us to follow our dreams."

Adds Lindsay, 16: "Jeanne is so much fun to talk to; she's very in touch with her inner self. At first I thought I would have to censor my speech, but then I found out that Jeanne never gives a fake answer — and sometimes she even swears! And, of course, she's very knowledgeable about art."

Crinkly eyes
For Chapman, 89, and a fairly new resident at Youville, the project helped to serve as an introduction to both the facility and the world of painting.

"I've been picking and choosing between some activities to see what I might be interested in," says Chapman, who worked as a firefighter in Cambridge for 38 years. "My wife and I never had children and I don't know too much about art, but I thought I'd give this a try."

For Pires, 16, and a native of the Republic of Cape Verde, producing a portrait was far more challenging than establishing a relationship with Chapman. "I have only been in Massachusetts for a year and a half, and I don't know much about art," he says. "But in my country, it's very natural to be around older people, both relatives and friends."

Hays, 15, had quite the opposite experience. A serious art student, she found Chapman to be an intriguing subject. "It was so interesting to try to capture Ralph's face — the lines, contours, crinkly eyes. There's a different thought process to painting older skin," she says.

What she didn't count on was the warm relationship she built with Chapman. "We connected in so many ways! I have a cousin who is a firefighter, so we spend time talking about Ralph's career. And when I was in his apartment, he was playing the radio, classics from the '40s and '50s, and I recognized some of the songs, since I love music," she says.

"He also had a big book of Norman Rockwell's art that his wife loved, and we spent time looking at it together," she adds. "My grandfathers both passed away before I was old enough to have adult conversations with them, so getting to know Ralph has been really special for me."

Critics' choice
According to Menges, the formal art show displayed all the best aspects of the program. "The seniors were so diplomatic about the students' work, and consequently the students had a lot of pride in presenting their pictures," she says. "It's really a win-win situation for everyone. The residents get the opportunity to have consistent interactions with another generation and at the same time learn a lot about the artistic process. And the students not only become more proficient in portraiture, but they learn to relate to older subjects in a polite, respectful manner. And hopefully, friendships evolve."

That certainly seems to be the case with Chapman and Hays. He says he was "completely captured" by her rendering of him and insisted on buying it for $35 — provided she put the money toward her education. She says she was thrilled that a friend who volunteers at Youville actually recognized Chapman from a photo of the portrait that was posted on Facebook; she also plans on staying in touch to update him on her future art classes, which include photography this semester and studio art next year.

And when she delivered Chapman's portrait to his apartment after the show ended, he presented her with his wife's Norman Rockwell book.

"She took such an interest in it when she first spied it that I want her to have it in her collection," he says.

Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.