The fine art of living

Drawing: A national project attempts to illustrate for medical students that artistic passion need not fade with age.

March 03, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Youth and age met face to face across tables set up at the American Visionary Art Museum yesterday afternoon for a national pilot program that seeks to show medical students in their 20s that old age can be an artistic time in life.

Fourteen Baltimore seniors, all healthy and ranging in age from 68 to 86, each paired off with a first-year Johns Hopkins School of Medicine student for the first session of a National Institute on Aging project, titled the Vital Visionaries Collaboration. The idea is to give medical students greater experience and insight into old age.

Creative interaction with senior citizens can make students better caregivers in their careers as doctors, officials said. The project will be applied in other pairings of museums and medical schools in cities around the country, said Jeannine Mjoseth, public affairs specialist for the National Institute on Aging.

The goal in yesterday's introductory session was for each person to draw a self-portrait by steadily gazing in a mirror, without looking down at the paper.

The technique, known as contour drawing, was a big hit with Margaret Ann Kramer, 68, who goes by "Maggie."

At the end of the session, she displayed her drawing, which appeared to be made of musical notes and abstract curves, to her partner, 23-year-old Nicholas Donoghue.

"I think Picasso should start to worry," Kramer, a former owner of an Irish pub, said with a laugh.

Donoghue, who hails from Connecticut, said the two became fast friends over table talk before the art project began.

"I'm the luckiest guy in the room," he said, referring to working with Kramer. "Maggie described herself as a radical old liberal socialist, and I think that's super cool. That's the way I want to describe myself someday."

Similar chords were struck around the room as the pairs - old and young enough to be grandparents and grandchildren - conversed easily, as if they had known each other longer than 15 minutes. Several pairs who interviewed each other in a playful exercise - asking what they would take with them to a desert island - said they found more common ground than expected.

Sol Goodman, 80, quipped of his 23-year-old partner, Nivee Amin, that he has "always liked older women."

Two nuns, both members of the Oblate Sisters of Providence, participated in the museum aging project. One, Sister Mary Brenda Motte, 73, looked at her self-portrait and declared, "If that was on a wanted poster, they'll never find me."

Don Lambert of Topeka, Kan., an expert on the contour drawing of the late American artist Elizabeth Layton, gave a presentation that showed Layton's art blossomed late in life. He told of his friendship with Layton, who died in 1993, and showed a picture of her on a porch swing in Wellsville, a small Kansas town.

"I'd visit her every week for 15 years, and she'd make me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich," Lambert said.

Lambert encouraged the seniors to give realistic self-portraits of themselves, leaving in the marks of age.

"I'm going to be on wrinkle patrol," he said. "If you're having a bad hair day, then draw that."

Three more sessions will follow this spring, all held at the Visionary Art museum. The aging and creativity project is matched with the museum's current exhibition, "Golden Blessings of Old Age."

The Hopkins medical students, who arrived and departed by van, said the two-hour session gave them a cross-generational connection that is lacking in their busy everyday lives.

"I've lost three of my four grandparents, which is part of the appeal" of the project, said Donovan Maust, 26.

Jessica Long, 23, said, "These are people we wouldn't meet otherwise. It was a long stressful day with a test, but this was more energizing than any nap or cup of coffee."

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