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.
In order to keep the series consistent, I wanted to rely on two motifs that would be flexible enough to convey each different theme. Images of the residents were a must, but I wanted to avoid direct portraiture if possible to make the subjects more universal. I decided I'd focus on hands where possible, including full figures only when necessary.
Flowers and plants are a staple of my work anyway, and in this case they also are a symbol of my grandmother Frances Yosway, who practiced this particular style of decorative painting called bauernmalerei.
Each painting is 2' x 3', acrylic on canvas.
This painting shows the community garden buzzing with workers and bursting with beautiful flowers. We see the scene from above to show the interweaving pattern that is harmonious and welcoming, a pattern incorporating the people working together as well as the products of that effort.
Hundreds of photos through the years show the "glitter" and "fire" of the people here. This painting attempts to show the sheer quantity of activities which are so inclusive and draw people out into the very active community. The floral motif here is brilliant blooms, framing and accentuating portraits of the residents in high form.
It’s easy for family to visit here, and they’re welcomed by all when they come. I talked with several people whose families join them for activities, though most just come for a good meal. Everyone gets to know your family, and several staffers who have been here for all 20 years have grown up here - through marriage, kids, moves, and so on. So for many, it feels like everyone here is family anyway.
I’ve had dinner in this dining room over a hundred times - it’s where we always come for a special occasion, or just to see each other. We sit around the table, and my Pop-pop, ever the gentleman, will hold out the chair (sometimes for me, sometimes for my mom) to sit down. The room is bustling and maybe a little loud, an iconic place of family connection, whether you’re related or not.
This painting shows a nurse and a patient holding hands in a warm gesture, a show of support and understanding. Small flowers overlay the image and move through their hands to symbolize the many small gestures that make up such a relationship of mutual respect between residents, staff, administration, and healthcare staff.
This painting symbolizes the characteristics that make the residents unique, both as a community and as individuals, by depicting the hands of residents and staff each holding up one flower. People's differences—in backgrounds, experiences, personalities, and tastes—are what keep life here interesting and fun. This is a place where each person builds a home and continues to grow.
When talking to residents about the theme of this painting, Service, I heard the responsibility they feel for their community to be safe, well-served, accommodating, welcoming….. they give their time and make it their concern to fix anything broken and help anyone who needs it. Lead groups, represent on committees, and provide services that they're skilled in.
This is based on a story I heard several times in my interviews, an example of the many different ways that the residents volunteer their service to each other. It's a scene of a gentleman bringing a lady in a wheelchair to her hair appointment. His silhouette is in the foreground with his captain’s stripes showing. A tree grows out from him, symbolizing strength and support - reminiscent of the story of the Giving Tree. He’s dressed in uniform because residents here have spent their lives serving this country, and now they just don't know how to stop. Going from piloting planes to wheelchairs is a powerful image of humility.