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Louisa, a resident at Thompson House, sits with some of her artwork.

The Arts

Engaging seniors with art

Artists connect with residents of Brattleboro nursing home

Editor’s note: Thompson House identified residents only by first name, citing privacy and legal concerns.

BRATTLEBORO—Many dimensions of care emerge at Thompson House when regional artists bring their work to monthly gallery shows and conversation at the nursing and residential care center on Maple Street.

From the point of view of Activities Director Sandra Ware, the shows mirror for many of the residents what life was like before they came to live here.

“It’s our Friday night Gallery Walk,” she said, speaking of the popular monthly event in Brattleboro.

For Leonard Ragouzeos, the Newfane artist who organized the four-year-old program with Ware’s encouragement, “we get to talk about our art. And there’s a connection made with residents that brings out conversation. There someone is — looking up at you from a wheelchair — and all of a sudden, they come alive.”

Ragouzeos came to know Ware on his frequent visits to artist Nicolas Apgar, a resident of the 53-year-old facility, and later on when his mother lived there.

For Administrator Dane Rank, such events express the quality of life he believes Thompson House offers.

“We have a better activity program than any other place I know,” he said, adding of activities director Ware, “Her name tag says, ‘Director of Fun.’”

“Sandy brings the town of Brattleboro to Thompson House,” he said.

And for the residents who come to the shows and meet the artists, the pleasures are apparent, as they examine the paintings, ask questions about technique, and sometimes talk about their own experiences with painting and drawing.

Some bring examples. Often the conversations extend to personal stories. And they all speak of engagement.

A mini-museum to residents’ doors

A few weeks ago, artist Susan Wadsworth, who teaches at Fitchburg State University and lives just across the border in Rindge, N.H., and also has a family home on the New York/Vermont border, brought examples of her pastel-on-paper rural abstractions to the Thompson House afternoon gallery.

Gaining inspiration from familiar and well-known scenic sites in her orbit, she explained that she does not do so-called “plein air” (painting from life) painting and will visit the sites she wants to create in pastel multiple times.

A holder of two master’s degrees, Wadsworth likes explaining her work. She told residents who gathered around her pictures that she achieves the effect she wants by a layering technique.

Telling Wadsworth the pictures were “nice,” one resident, Louisa, remained interested as Wadsworth described the technique she uses to create the images she wants based on her impressions from multiple visits to the sites.

“I layer about 20 times,” she said, “until it’s just what I remember and want to convey.”

About 15 of the 60 residents, some more mobile than others, came to Wadsworth’s exhibit. Director Ware brings interested and less mobile residents in wheelchairs from their rooms to the exhibits.

Marie, who comes to all the shows, said, “A mini-museum appears at your door, and there’s no conceivable way [Thompson House] could hustle that many people to art shows.”

She also takes a painting class taught at the residence by Marilyn Allen of the River Gallery Art School in Brattleboro. “I never thought I’d be able to do this and now I’m painting watercolors,” she said.

Marie said also that while she could probably make it to a downtown gallery, she doesn’t like the crowds.

She noted that she loved poetry, “but it’s a language I don’t understand anymore.”

Betsey, a resident, and William, her husband who was visiting her, spent about 15 minutes looking at Wadsworth’s pastels and conversing with her and others and then began talking about the house they still have in Jamaica and the active life they’d lived. He was a town planner and had served on town and county boards.

Janice said she liked the paintings and then said she was surprised when she learned one of the abstractions was a view of Crotched Mountain.

Melody said she came because “I’m big on visual stimulation.”

Frances, after looking at Wadsworth’s work, concluded, “Yes, these are more interesting than some others.”

Later, Wadsworth described in an email how the Thompson House experience affected her.

“It was wonderful to take my work [there],” she wrote, adding, “I always appreciate watching people respond to my work, to see if they understand where the forms and colors come from.”

“The Thompson residents were very appreciative and I heard some interesting comments, such as ‘you have an unusual use of line...’ as one of the female residents pondered my work,” Wadsworth continued.

“Each resident seemed to respond to something different: the sunsets, the way the sun dissolved behind the trees, the ice on the trees of Crotched Mountain, or the shape of Mt. Monadnock. It was a rewarding visit.”

The next event scheduled after the gallery show was an on-site animal visit, a weekly activity, Ware explained.

“First, we get intellectual stimulation, and then we get to see the donkey,” she joked. “We have animals come all the time, many from Winchester Stables in Newfane.”

‘Simple and important things’

Two weeks later, artist Ragouzeous brought examples of his black-and-white, ink-on-paper works, some standard letter-size and others larger, including an expansive work of a model airplane, plus the actual small wooden model version hanging near it.

The smaller drawings might depict everyday objects, such as a luxurious head of garlic or a paintbrush. And, while the materials he uses may conjure a certain gloominess, the images instead are very much alive.

One was a serious but gentle portrait of a young Franz Kafka.

“I like Kafka,” Ragouzeos said.

He has also said, “The subject and focus of much of my work is usually a person or a singular object such as a fruit or hand tool. Simple and important things. My ink drawings or ink paintings are created with waterproof India ink on yupo, an archival synthetic paper.”

Before moving permanently to Vermont about six years ago, Ragouzeos, a Bronx native, taught studio art at Millersville University in Pennsylvania for 25 years and before that for six years at Iowa State. He graduated from the celebrated Bronx High School of Science.

He is also is a member of Rock River Artists, a collaborative of about 20 artists along the Rock River Basin in South Newfane and Williamsville that holds open studio tours at different times during the year.

At the show, a resident said of Ragouzeos’s work, “This is the first time seeing the work. I admire it. Not so many artists do black and white, and it’s very nice to look at.”

Mildred also admired the paintings and said, “My son was an artist,” and then recalled some of her long history in Brattleboro.

“I was born at home on Maple Street 92 years ago,” she said. “I went to high school in Brattleboro but for three years only. I had to work. We used to ski on Fairview — halfway between here and Maple. We skied to the hill and the swamp before there was Price Chopper.”

Mary, a resident, and her husband Tony, who was visiting, spoke at some length to Ragouzeos as they stood to the side of the large plane drawing,

Tony, a 20-year veteran of the Marine Corps, said, “I come every day.” He lives in Putney and he preferred not to say more.

Several other local artists also participate in the exhibit program at Thompson House, as well as in another program called Art in Motion, during which residents can join artists as they paint.

“While painting there, I have the opportunity to share some of the views and life experiences of the very remarkable residents,” said Robin T. Stronk, who participates in both programs.

“I believe that interacting with them while painting somehow opens creative channels that are not usually available to me,” she said. “I am both humbled and invigorated by my time there.”

Artist Marjorie Sayer said of exhibiting her work there, “It was interesting to hear the comments of the residents who were not schooled in the discussion of art. It gave me a smile and made me feel that what I was doing at Thompson House was appreciated.”

“Showing my work and sharing time with the residents gives me another dimension to why I paint,” Caryn King said: “Not painting for my pleasure or to sell, but to share with these folks.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #119 (Wednesday, September 21, 2011).

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