After 6 months of planning and 6 weeks of intensive studio time, I am proud to present a project that gave me the opportunity to learn more about both people very close to me and people who are very different from me.
The retirement community Patriot's Colony at Williamsburg, where my maternal grandparents have lived for the past 9 years, is celebrating its 20th Anniversary as an institution. Through a little nepotism, a little good timing, and a lot of good faith, I was hired by the celebration planning committee to make a series of paintings based on their chosen six core values: Individuality, Vitality, Community, Service, Respect, and Family. Aside from this, the content of the paintings was largely up to me.
Since I’m not a resident, I would be offering my view as an outsider, albeit one with almost 10 years of visiting my grandparents there. Muralists, as makers of large-scale public art, are often put in the position of representing a community regardless of how familiar (or not) they are with it. I take this position seriously, and I do whatever work I can to create a genuine image that comes from a place of familiarity. In this case, that work took the form of over 25 hours of interviews with around 30 residents and staff.
Over all of those visits through the years for dinners, birthdays, holidays, and more dinners, I thought I had gotten the feel of the place, but I was making a lot of assumptions about what it was like to move into and live in a retirement community. While I had initially planned on having to dance around certain subjects, both in the interviews and the paintings themselves, everyone was very direct and had only positive things to say. I found myself not only gaining huge amounts of respect for this beautiful and healthy community who works to support each other, but also learning a new perspective on the shape of my grandparents' lives since they'd moved in.
To be frank, while I knew Patriot's Colony was a very comfortable and accommodating place to retire with a healthy checklist of amenities and activities, I assumed it was an unavoidably depressing thing to move there. Wouldn't anyone prefer to be in their own home, rather than surrendering it for a place where you know you'll only leave in a box? (This isn't just me being morbid - this phrase is casually thrown around there with dark humor.) I also guessed that there was tension or resentment between the staff and the wealthy retirees.
After hours of very pleasant conversation, I learned that people who've moved there are fully delighted by the entire place. None of my uncomfortable suspicions had a leg to stand on, and they fell away to reveal an administrative staff that is devoted to running an exceptional institution, residents who are welcoming, active, and deeply motivated to serve those around them, and staff who consider the residents extensions of their own families.
I have pages and pages of notes from these interviews, stories about resident welcome parties where everyone already knows your name, and working in the garden outside your house, dirt on your hands, sharing the vegetables with the head of dining. I heard about moving from Hawaii to Virginia to join this community, and getting 55 roses from your ex-daughter-in-law in Hawaii and counting with her over the phone to see if they're all there. I learned about memory boxes with smells and textures that can start a conversation with a young nurse aid who asks about what you used to cook.
All I needed to do to make lovely images was to focus entirely on representing this place as honestly as possible.