Looking at the world through older eyes

Perspective: An NIH program with the American Visionary Art Museum pairs medical students and seniors to explore aging with art.

October 21, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Wanted: healthy Baltimoreans 65 and over who can paint pictures of their lives.

The American Visionary Art Museum has space waiting on the walls for art created by seemingly ordinary older people. As part of an experimental program on art and aging, a dozen or so senior citizen recruits will have their work hung near one of Anna Mary Robertson "Grandma" Moses' landscape masterpieces, The Old Covered Bridge, which she painted when she was 83.

The museum on Key Highway was selected by the National Institutes of Health as the site for a program on art and aging, which pairs senior city residents with medical students. The program, "Vital Visionaries Collaboration," will cost $45,000, institute officials said.

Each medical student volunteer will be teamed with an elderly person in a series of meetings at the museum. The current exhibition, Golden Blessings of Old Age, which features work by acclaimed artists who peaked late in life, will be the program's focal point.

The doctor launching the project, Judith A. Salerno, said recruiting healthy seniors may help the medical students form more positive images of aging. Whether that proves true will be measured at the end by examining the students' attitudes.

"We try to counter the stereotype that [seniors] tend to be frail or demented," Salerno said. "If we let the students see ways of successful aging, that gives them a view that can carry them through their entire medical careers."

Salerno, deputy director of the National Institute on Aging, said the medical students will be in their first or second year, in order to influence them at a formative stage.

The project seeks medical students from Johns Hopkins Hospital, the University of Maryland Medical School and others living in Baltimore.

`Different perception'

The geriatrician said students in their 20s are not likely to have much firsthand experience with the elderly.

"It's how dispersed we are. We don't grow up seeing our grandparents, so we have here an opportunity to see seniors in a positive light and move medical students toward a different perception," Salerno said.

Four evening meetings are planned over nine months, with the first session taking place at the museum this year, she said. The sessions are planned as a kind of journey back and forth through time.

The two-person teams will be asked to explore the exhibit together at first. Later in the program, the teams will be asked to create a piece of art together. They may be asked to imagine -- or draw -- themselves old if they are young and young if they are old. In the last meeting, their joint artwork will be shown in an exhibit in the museum's "Community Voices" gallery.

The founder of the museum, Rebecca A. Hoffberger, believes the pilot project may encourage creativity in the older participants and enhance their self-respect.

As she walked through the galleries of the Blessings exhibit, which includes work by artists in their 90s, Hoffberger said, "It's very important to see that the best part of life can be at the very end."

Hoffberger, 51, said her once-rebellious baby boomer generation is fast becoming a "silver tsunami" and needs to learn more lessons about aging well.

Experts in geriatrics and art say there is evidence to suggest people in their 80s and 90s can be more creative. At that stage, they say, social conventions are less important and inhibiting to people.

"Sometimes people become emboldened," Marcia Semmes, the museum's director of development, said. "They reach a point where they don't care what people think."

`Aliveness'

If they feel a certain liberty, the project's seniors might be more inspired to express their life experiences than ever before, Semmes added.

The Blessings exhibit features self-portraits and other autobiographical art. But it's not all as tranquil as the rural America of "Grandma" Moses. In a series of needlework embroideries and appliques, the late artist Esther Nisenthal Krinitz narrated her Jewish girlhood in a Polish village overtaken by Nazi soldiers in 1939.

"These are all on fire with aliveness," Hoffberger said of the sculptures, mixed media and paintings in the Blessings exhibit. "The lifelong thing they [artists] take with them is art."

For information on volunteering for the "Vital Visionaries" program, call (202) 884-8611.

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