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Hidden talent

Residents at Valley Cares in Townshend rediscover their artistic gifts

TOWNSHEND—The vital and vigorous exhibit of paintings, drawings, sculpture, needlework, photography, and sketches had viewers in the public rooms and hallways at West River Valley Assisted Living wide-eyed, not with incredulity but with appreciation and affection.

Further, since many of the visitors were sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews of the 27-plus residents, there was also pride and a bit of melancholy.

Twenty-three of the 25 residents asked by Recreation and Volunteer Coordinator Dawn Slade to join the show said yes and then, according to Slade, when the reluctant two saw the works on display, they asked to join.

“It was too late,” the sympathetic Slade said, feeling bad and noting that there was no more room.

But the response has given her the incentive to make the show an annual event, she explained, recognizing that there’s more than enough art to go around for years to come.

Slade — a Grafton resident who’s eligible for the baby parade at the Grace Cottage Hospital Fair since she was born there 50 years ago — has worked at West River Valley Assisted Living since it opened four years ago. Her enthusiasm is reflected in her contacts with the residents.

Assisted Living is part of the Valley Cares complex on Route 35 in Townshend and includes West River Valley Independent Living, also four years old.

Slade said she had been inspired to do the show, in part, by resident Elsie Hedges, who had hung a framed picture in her room of several of the delicate and graceful fashion drawings she’d done when she was 17 or 18.

Hedges, 92, articulate and expressive, said she’d done them because she was interested in clothes.

“I just did [the drawings] on my own — I never took a lesson,“ she said.

“People thought they were good, but I never thought much of them,” she added. “I just call my sketches ‘fashion design.’ I also sometimes sketched people like Greta Garbo.”

She noted that no one had ever been that interested in the drawings, not either one of her husbands over the years, nor her parents.

From Connecticut, Hedges has lived at Assisted Living nearly four years. “My daughter’s family moved to a big house in Athens,” she said. They moved Hedges into Assisted Living, and she says she really likes it.

Slade said that periodically she has so-called sharing sessions, with residents doing exactly that.

“Elsie said she didn’t have anything to share,” Slade said, then asking Hedges if she had any more sketches like the framed examples.

It turned out Hedges’ daughter in Athens had kept many of them. She soon delivered an envelope filled with sketches.

Slade hastily put the drawings into an album to display on a table for the show, just below the framed sketches.

Subsequently, Slade reported, she’s switched from sharing sessions to storytelling.

“Really, it’s part of the juice of this place, finding out about one another and honoring the differences,” she said.

“Group living is a new experience for most of them, and in a way it represents a new beginning,” Slade added. “It’s what makes the place so vibrant.”

Slade has arranged for students from Townshend Elementary School and from Leland & Gray to either record or take notes during the story events.

First resident ‘by default’

Other vibrant examples of life at the Valley Cares complex, this time from the Independent Living center, came in the form of a painting of the brick Valley Cares office building, and Terry Ward, the artist who painted it.

Ward has lived at Independent Living from the beginning, he said, adding, “And if I live ‘til Nov. 30, I’ll be 68.”

He also said that he and another resident were to first to move in. Subsequently, the other resident died, “so by default, I’m the first person here,” he added.

Ward used to run the Valley Cares Thrift Shop on Route 30, which he had planned to do as a volunteer until “Valley Cares didn’t want [the shop] anymore.”

“I miss it,” he said.

“It was wonderful and fun. And you met people,” said Ward, who generally is accompanied by his oxygen apparatus.

“I suffer from emphysema,” he explained. “That’s an illness one is embarrassed to admit to, since you brought it on yourself.”

Ward has painted and written most of his life. “I’ve been a dump attendant and a newspaper editor, including the Wyoming State Journal,” he reported.

Meanwhile, he’s been publishing his own small newspaper, Notes from the Dump, for 26 years.

He is working on issue 457 of the publication, which has drawn some publicity, he said. “People magazine called me a free-wheeling spirit,” he said — a possible understatement.

Ward was born in Rutland, and later moved with his family to Attleboro, Mass., where he finished high school. He subsequently took a variety of college classes at a variety of colleges but never graduated.

“They don’t give diplomas for street smarts,” he pointed out, demonstrating his penchant for self-deprecating humor.

“I was in the Navy for six years, from 1963 to 1969,” Ward said, adding that he loved it.

“They sent me to Greece for two years and then to the Mediterranean,” he said. “And all the way from San Francisco to Beirut. All I’d ever really seen was Vermont.”

Ward said he did the painting of the office building “because it was the only one I could see out my window.” Rich and expressive, the painting looks almost like an illustration of a child’s vision of a house.

Ward had another earlier painting in the show, a picture of a pheasant in the woods. “I copied it from a tapestry,” he said.

Ward has a daughter and a son in Washington State, and a 16-year-old granddaughter whom he talks about with affection. He says he keeps busy “pursuing nothing.”

Work in the show was done by 23 residents, relatives and volunteers, with a series of photographs from John Nopper, chairman of the board.

Some of the work will be shown for another week or so; some has already been taken down. Those interested in visiting the show may call Dawn Slade at Assisted Living, 802-365-4910.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #128 (Wednesday, November 23, 2011).

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