The late Gene D. Cohen, psychiatrist and first head of the National Institute on Mental Health's Center on Aging, served as primary investigator for a landmark study which began in 2001, Creativity and Aging: The Impact of Professionally Conducted Cultural Programs on Older Adults. The final report, issued April 2006, yielded data demonstrating that creative activity is not just fun—as anyone who's tried it knows—but its expression in later life positively affects general health, mental health, overall functioning and sense of well-being. All forms of artistic expression studied had these life-enhancing effects: performing arts, literary and oral expression, and creative expression through physical media such as painting and pottery. The key to the successful outcomes were mastery of the art, which was ensured by the professional teaching artists conducting the programs, and providing enough time to achieve mastery; and meaningful social engagement between participants during the course of the programs.
One of the organizations that participated in the study, Elders Share the Arts in Brooklyn, N.Y., has been helping elders develop their creative sides for over 30 years. And another local organization, Elder Craftsmen, has been helping older adults be creative, productive and independent while promoting greater recognition of the work of older artists and craftspeople since the 1970s. So, though this type of work has been around for a long time, what's new is the empirical data proving its value on both body and mind.
In a recent article, Gay Hanna, head of the National Center for Creative Aging, draws upon studies of brain plasticity—the ability of the brain to change throughout life—to conclude, "We never lose the potential to learn new things as we grow older. In fact, we can master new skills and be creative all our lives." (AARP: The Magazine, Sept/Oct. 2010). The article profiles seven adults, aged 52-87, who turned to art in midlife or later life, and demonstrates how their decades of life experience added to the richness of their art.
Photo by Herb Scher
Two New Yorkers with deep roots in the fields of art and arts administration—Maura O'Malley and Ed Friedman—were struck by the magnitude of the effects noted in Cohen's study, and started an organization, Lifetime Arts, to promote creative aging. They knew they would need to work with established organizations to have the most impact and—fortuitously for the library world—decided public libraries would be their partner of choice.They launched a pilot with several libraries in Westchester County, New York in 2008-2009, then continued the success there with a second cycle of programs 2009-2010.
Creative Aging at the NYPL, 2010--Artists, library staff,and Maura and Ed from Lifetime Arts. Photo, Herb Scher
Now it's New York City's turn! Thanks to generous funding from the Fan Fox & Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, six of New York Public Library's branches will offer creative aging programs this fall. The programs consist of a minimum of eight 90-minute classes and each will end with a culminating celebration. Here's the line-up:
Sing for Life, Sing for Joy at the Baychester Library, Bronx. Pamela Warrick-Smith, Teaching Artist. A 10-session choral program will focus on a capella singing to encourage vocal improvement and build a sense of community for Co-op City’s large older adult population. While enjoying music-making, and exploring folk music and spirituals, participants will work on vocal and performance techniques, music theory, improvisation and composition.
Drawing from Experience at the Morris Park Library, Bronx. Josh Millis, Teaching Artist. Delving into the unique qualities and mark-making capacities of pencil, charcoal, and oil pastels, participants will explore line, contour, perspective, value, and color mixing. They will look at and discuss artists and their work using books and digital images and apply their discoveries to their own work.
Life Maps at the Countee Cullen Library, Manhattan. Paul Ferrara & Celia Caro, Teaching Artists. Focusing on line, texture, point of view and color, participants will examine a variety of maps and the work of map artists such as Romare Bearden. They will create their own collage life maps as they achieve an understanding of the principles of art and design and gain skills in the use of basic vocabularies, materials, tools, and techniques as they apply to collage.
LiveStories: A Personal Journey through Memoir and Performance at the Grand Central Library, Manhattan. Michael Wiggins & Ann Montgomery, Teaching Artists. Through journal writing and performance, participants will reflect on their lives, find and express their unique personal voices and learn skills for documenting and sharing their personal experiences with others. They will be introduced to the work of established writers working in the area of memoir including Edwidge Danticant and Spalding Gray. The series will culminate in a live performance of original written work by members of the workshop.
Self-Expression in Art: A Hands-on Workshop for Adults at the 67th Street Library, Manhattan. Sabra Friedman, Teaching Artist. Each of the eight sessions includes an introduction to the work of a variety of artists, styles and techniques, art-making and shared reflection. Participants will learn to use a variety of drawing and collage materials including graphite and white pencil, charcoal, ink and torn paper. They will experiment with positive/negative shapes, abstraction, and the use of lines, create volume and mass. Importantly, participants will be encouraged and inspired to take advantage of the neighborhood's great museums.
Roaring Chorus Workshops for Older Staten Island Adults at the West New Brighton Library, Staten Island. Musical Chairs Chamber Ensemble, Teaching Artists. Up to 30 older adults will receive sequential, skill-based music instruction focused on vocal training, introduction to basic harmony and music theory, basic ear training, and choral singing. The repertoire will focus on popular music of the 1920s, 30s and 40s including work by Gershwin, Berlin and Porter.