Nancy Roe of Presque Isle insists she has never been the creative type. Even as a self-described “lifelong learner,” the independent, 85-year-old retired librarian said firmly, “I have always stayed away from art classes and craft classes.”
Nonetheless, Roe recently put a caller on hold while she finished gluing together an “explosion book,” a complicated folded-and-glued booklet that pops open to display multiple panels for photos, text or other content. “You can Google it,” she laughed. “I’m making one for my kids for Christmas. They’ll be amazed because they all know their mother is very noncreative.”
The explosion book is just one of several objects Roe learned to make last fall in an eight-week class taught by Presque Isle artist Pamela Crawford.
The book-making class, offered in connection with Presque Isle’s senior college, was supported and funded in part by the Maine Arts Commission’s Creative Aging program. The program, in its third year, trains Maine artists to lead hands-on art classes for adults 55 and older in community settings, such as senior centers, libraries and assisted-living facilities. It also provides a small stipend for the artists who lead these classes.
Crawford, 65, also of Presque Isle, is one of 15 Maine artists who have completed the free, 12-hour online training program, which is offered by the nonprofit National Center for Creative Aging. Affiliated with George Washington University, the National Council on Aging and the National Endowment for the Arts, NCCA’s initiatives aim to build community, promote physical and emotional health and support lifelong learning through cultivating creative expression.
“I had become interested in the program as an aging artist myself,” Crawford said. She said the self-paced training refreshed her understanding of the natural processes of aging and provided guidelines for developing age-appropriate art lessons and projects for older students.
Older adults, even those without a background in the arts, are generally more willing than younger adults to take risks and less worried about what others may think of their projects, she said. They also bring a lifetime of experience and perspective to the creative environment.
“As our brains and bodies change, we compensate in creative ways,” Crawford said. “Older adults are talented, creative problem-solvers based on our collection of life experiences.”
The relaxed environment of a hands-on art class “promotes spontaneity and collaboration in older adults and allows freedom in a way that other parts of their lives don’t,” Crawford said. “It’s the creative process that has the power, not the final product.”
It’s not about becoming an artist
At the Maine Arts Commission, Special Programs Director Kathleen Mundell oversees the Creative Aging program. She said Maine was one of 13 states invited in 2013 to participate in the program, based on its status as one of the oldest and most rural states in the nation. The program has been funded here since that time.
“Research tells us that being engaged in the creative process as we age is good for us,” she said. “It feels good and it builds new connections in our brains. It’s as important to our well-being as exercise, diet and social engagement.”
And social engagement is an important element of the creative aging program. “A lot of the training we do with the artists focuses on social engagement, to counter the tendency toward isolation as we age,” Mundell said. Courses must be offered in six- to eight-week sessions and the material for each class must build sequentially on what was learned in the previous meeting, she said. In this way, participants learn to add new skills and ideas to those already learned while also building valuable relationships with classmates and instructors.
In addition, each course wraps up with a public invitation to visit the studio or other creative venue, view the artwork and mingle with the students and their families.
“The emphasis is not on becoming an artist,” Mundell said. “The larger goal is to explore creative approaches to problem-solving, develop new social networks and express who you are in a way that gets heard and reflected back to you.”
Mundell’s program has just approved a new round of projects to fund in the coming year. These include a pottery class in Augusta, a poetry class in Yarmouth and a traditional dance class in Lewiston.
‘You have to think fast’
Beginning in January, longtime dance instructor and Lewiston native Cindy Larock, 63, will teach traditional English and Franco-American country dances in an old auditorium space at the Lewiston Public Library. While dance steps are basic and easily learned, she said, creativity comes with growing confidence that allows dancers to add their own twirls and flourishes in time with the music.
Dancing, especially in formations that move dancers through a series of partners, is excellent physical exercise that also calls for quick reflexes and problem-solving, she noted. “If that gent doesn’t come toward you when he’s supposed to, you have to think fast and figure out how to get where you’re supposed to be at the right time,” she said. And since every partner is different in skill, style and body type, dancing builds skills in adaptivity and responsiveness, she said.
In addition to teaching the steps of the dances, Larock’s curriculum calls for participants, many of whom she expects will have grown up in area Franco-American households, to share their memories about homegrown music and dance traditions of generations past. “The sense of community is enhanced by the opportunity to discuss our kinship, memories and shared cultural traditions,” she said.
Her final class session will bring in members of a local multigenerational folk orchestra, which includes several children, to play for a public dance. “It’s taking a cultural tradition, reintroducing it to a generation of people whose parents brought it to Maine and letting them put their 2015 spin on it,” Larock said.
In addition to Cindy Larock in Presque Isle and Pamela Crawford in Lewiston, Maine artists on the Creative Aging roster are certified to teach singing, painting, sculpture, photography, fiber arts, storytelling and other creative activities. The training is provided free of charge, but, in an effort to reach all areas of the state with a range of creative disciplines, artists must apply and be selected to participate. The next deadline for applications to the training program is May 2016. Applications for new community arts projects are due in April 2016.
For more information about the Creative Aging program, visit the website of the Maine Arts Commission.