Portraits — Bringing Generations Together

May 2012 marked the second semester that the residents of Youville House anxiously awaited the arrival of Elizabeth Menges’ Portrait Class from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School in Cambridge.. While some of the residents knew the routine because they had observed the process during the first semester, the students came fresh and anxious.

Once the “art” portion of the project began to take shape, students began to relax. Residents dressed appropriately and sat poised and still. The students worked intensely, making lines come alive. Over time their work began to look more and more like their subjects. All in the room felt a bonding taking place. One young participant even started coming to hear one of the residents sing at the Monday evening concert organized by residents. Eventually she joined the resident in song during one of the performances. Clearly there was more to these relationships than just simply drawing or painting someone!

Comments from students were all very complimentary. Eve especially enjoyed the stories told by the resident she had painted. She still felt saddened by the wartime story of an ambulance ride that ended in the death of two of the resident’s friends. War became real through these stories. But this sad story was balanced by the escapades to get the resident to meet her future husband. A sister was involved and lots of girlish drama that made the bond between the resident, well into her 90s, and the student, still a teenager, even closer as they both dreamed about everyday fun things.

When asked what had made the project special, one resident could only emphasize how much she had enjoyed being around the young artists.. She felt very much alive in the presence of these young people and could not stop listing positive reactions to the experience: how worthwhile the project had been, how much fun they all had, how the learning experience extended to both students and residents.

Ms Menges had clear goals for her students:

The overarching template is that my students will record their oral histories with a tape recorder, create one-day portrait sketches in their sketchbooks, take photographs of their faces and living environments, and synthesize this visual documentation when they return to the classroom to create two carefully realized portraits--- (1) a line drawing with value that they will transfer to a stretched canvas and turn into (2) a full-color acrylic painting. The residents and students will work together to curate, prepare, and install artwork to be put in a show on the first floor of the Youville House.”

The end of the session was celebrated with a showing of the art work in the Atrium of Youville House. Parents, school committee members, teachers, friends and the residents came to admire, congratulate and reminisce about the times spent together. Maybe the experience will be a turning point in the lives of those involved. While a resident felt the excitement of youth one more time; perhaps a student enjoyed the personal attention of a model, also genuinely interested in the artist. The smiles and feelings of satisfaction spoke loud and clear. For both artist and model alike, the experience was life changing!

Student artists' work pictured from L to R: Honora Gibbons, Elsa Mark-Ng, Juliana Brandao