1. Please share who you are, and the name of your art program or art initiative.
My name is Jeanne Kukuruza and I am facilitator and creator of the art group “Elderfriends”. It is a weekly, two hour group at a local nursing home in the beautiful mountains of North Conway, New Hampshire. The group is small, 6-8 participants, and has been active for five years.
2. What population do you serve and why do you enjoy working with this demographic? Why is your work needed?
I work with the elderly in a small group dynamic. Since I volunteer, I can take as much time as I need with each one of my elder-friends. Eye contact, a solid ear, encouragement to continue to grow - this attention makes them blossom in all areas of their lives. The art is important in and of itself but I also provide a clear message of “I see you and you matter.” It’s like fertilizer for their souls and I love being able to provide that.
3. Please share a descriptive “snapshot” of one of your art sessions, your studio/workspace, and describe the emotional “atmosphere” of your sessions.
When I arrive, there are usually 1 or 2 participants waiting. I set up materials and give them a tutorial on the project, then go to gather the others. I’ve found that giving instruction to only 1 or 2 people at a time is very effective in managing the group overall and it grew out of necessity.
It’s not easy getting everyone out of their rooms and on task all at once! Everyone eventually is gathered around the table, deeply invested in their own work but actively supporting one another with words of encouragement, praise and constructive suggestions.
4. How do you make your artists feel at ease so that they can more comfortably express themselves?
I give them space to interact amongst themselves. I find the elderly connect with one another in small, subtle and gentle ways. Sometimes it is best to stand back and allow them to support each other. It allows them space to become strong group members.
5. Could you share an example of an art directive or an art theme that you might typically use in your art program?
Art themes tend to arise at the whims of the yard sale and thrift shop gods. J Since it is a volunteer position, I spend out of pocket for materials. Luckily, I know my way around a thrift shop and have a huge collection of eclectic supplies. Many activities involve Rummaging. I supply treasures in boxes on the table and they incarnate them in various forms; shadowboxes, wall hangings, dolls.
Greeting cards are always a recurring theme in our work. Each person has half a room to live in and a few people to keep in touch with. Cards are compact art projects if they are to be kept. Sending them to loved one helps them remain connected and showcases that they are still growing and learning and Being.
I have found ‘View-finding’ to be our best friend as well. Many activities involve creating freeform art; bleeding tissue paper art, printing ink abstracts, and then using a cut out “viewfinder” to find the magic spot on the paper that makes the image. This works in many forms. Recently, we worked with bird forms over bleeding tissue paper abstracts.
6. What most touches you most about the art groups that you facilitate?
This was the hardest question for me to answer, because what doesn’t touch me about working with this group?! I am humbled to be a part of providing meaning and growth to people in their final years. Just the other day, a group member told me she was surprised to discover her creative side at this late stage of her life. She said she was surprised to find herself growing.
7. Could you share a story about how art making has facilitated change, deeper connection, or emotional or psychological healing for an individual member of your art group?
For a good two months, we created abstracts using block printing ink, turning them into book marks and cards in the end. One woman who was particularly taken with the process said, “I lay in bed all week long thinking of how I will move the colors.” Another woman, legally blind and developmentally disabled, was able to work in this medium as well. I just increased the scale of everything for her.
Her pieces were beautiful and she was so proud to say, “Now I’m an artist just like my mother!” Another of my participants is 102 years old and up until last year, it was the only weekly activity she attended. She doesn’t come down much anymore, but she is still considered part of the group and it provides a sense of belonging she still enjoys.
8. Could you share a story or anecdote about something that is challenging about running your art program?
I’ve had to accept that the logistics of being old can dictate a lot of our fun. There are days we may have only three people at the table due to illness, doctor’s appointments, and sadly, the loss of our group members, but we have plenty of full table days as well. The amount of fun is the same no matter the size of the group so I just keep showing up, ready for them all.
9. What personally motivates you to facilitate art in the way that you do? Who are you as a creator and a teacher? What makes your art program unique?
Maya Angelou quote: “A woman in harmony with her spirit is like a river flowing. She goes where she will without pretense and arrives at her destination, prepared to be herself and only herself.” I’ve always spent time with the elderly, always loved art and have a natural predilection for teaching.
When I work to meet the creative needs of my elder friends, I feel the essence of all this in my life. It feels true and good and what I am meant to do, for sure. People ask me, “What about YOUR art?” My art is created on the way. My process involves learning all I can about various materials, distilling their potential to serve my group and then creating an activity they will be able to love and enjoy. My motto: Never forget to play!
10. How can people reading this article support your art program? How can people find out more about you and contact you?
I have not shared my program in an online presence but the creative process certainly does not exclude that someday!
If there are people out there who have questions or comments, I can be reached by email:
Thank you for spending a little bit of time seeing what we do.
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