Free art classes at the Visual Arts Center
Sue Nelson, a retiree who moved to Richmond several years ago, was looking for a hobby.
“I had worked for 55 years,” Nelson said. “It was time to play.”
Although she had always been crafty, Nelson had never created with stained glass. On a whim, she signed up for a class at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond — established in 1963 and nicknamed VisArts — and quickly grew to love the free sessions.
“It’s not just about learning a new skill,” said Nelson. “It’s the camaraderie with others that are like you: old, creative and a hell of a lot of fun.”
As a senior on a fixed income, Nelson appreciates that she can take classes for free; VisArts even provides art materials. When Nelson had tried taking regular adult classes in the past, the tuition and materials were prohibitively expensive.
Through VisArts’ Studio S program, Nelson has been able to sample classes in several different media, including ceramics and beading. “Where else in this city can you get that much free fun?” she mused.
How the Studio S program began
In 2008, the Visual Arts Center of Richmond had completed a renovation of the Virginia Dairy Building in the Fan District and was looking for more opportunities to use their beautiful new studio space during the day.
At the time, Richmonder Sally Kemp was developing outreach programs for the community art center. Kemp reached out to Senior Connections, the Capital Area Agency on Aging, a nonprofit working to improve the quality of life of older adults.
Together, VisArts and Senior Connections decided to offer free art classes to older adults involved in the Senior Connections’ Friendship Cafes — neighborhood gathering places for people over 60 who are physically, mentally and medically independent.
“Retirement communities tend to have well-established arts programming,” Kemp said. “VisArts, as a community art center, could step in and offer enriching arts resources to seniors who aren’t living in retirement facilities and thus don’t have access to those resources.”
Several years ago, after Kemp left VisArts to start her own art program for disabled adults, Nicki Stein took over as the outreach coordinator. Under Stein, Studio S has continued to grow, with classes also offered for groups from the Peter Paul Development Center in Richmond’s East End.
“This is one of my favorite programs because it provides seniors with an outlet for creatively expressing themselves while also providing a sense of community and opportunities to socialize,” Stein said.
Three times a year, Studio S offers four- and six-week courses, enabling older adults to take as many as 10 weeks of courses per session. With each course, participants can learn how to create art within a different medium, such as stained glass, collage, drawing, clay, wood, fiber arts and more.
“When planning classes, we talk to the participants in the program to see what they enjoy, and we cater to their needs,” Stein said.
Studio S courses are taught by practicing artists such as Mary McNeil, who teaches Nelson’s stained glass classes and has developed a dedicated following. McNeil enjoys working with Studio S students because of their dedication and willingness to learn art forms that are new to them.
“Some are there for the first time and are astounded they can actually cut glass,” said McNeil. “Others return each session and have turned into very good stained glass artists.”
Bridging the gap
In addition to Studio S, VisArts offers PALETTE, which stands for “Promoting Art for Life Enrichment Through Transgenerational Engagement,” with the VCU School of Allied Health Professions’ Department of Gerontology.
VCU graduate students are paired with senior volunteers to create art together and get to know one another. The program provides the students, many of whom will pursue healthcare careers, with insights into aging and the experiences of older adults.
Another transgenerational program, and an offshoot of Studio S, is Stay Together, a partnership between the Peter Paul Development Program and Binford Middle School.
With that program, Vis Arts pairs a sixth grader with a senior volunteer. The two work together to write, record and illustrate a story about that session’s theme. It’s a chance for older adults and middle school students to learn about each other and share their stories.
“When the participants filled out surveys afterward,” Stein said, “they all said they had learned a lot about the other student’s generation and felt more comfortable talking to the people of other generations.”
This summer, Sue Nelson and her fellow senior artists can participate in the studio’s exhibition of work by students in all of VisArts’ adult partnership programs, including the Sharon Siegel Visual Arts Program for survivors of brain injury.
“They each choose several pieces they feel most proud of and submit them to the showcase for the public to enjoy,” said Stein.
With its senior programs, like the free courses offered through Studio S, VisArts provides connection and community through art.
As numerous studies have shown, these opportunities to socialize with other older adults as well as people of other generations can help improve physical health and decrease risks of depression and anxiety. Artmaking is just what the doctor ordered!