Creative Aging at Briarcliff Manor Public Library

Being a fairly new director of a small suburban public library, I was interested in applying for the Creative Aging grant as soon as I heard about it. I have been trying to find ways to increase attendance at our adult programs and make our library more visible to the community at large. We are surrounded by libraries in nearby communities that have larger buildings, collections, and budgets. They also have had a greater variety of adult programming opportunities.

Briarcliff Manor Public Library serves a community of fewer than eight thousand and is located in Westchester County, New York. Our earlier facility, a former train station, was cozy and intimate, but did not really allow for a full range of activities and programs. Our new building, constructed in 2009, will be further expanded with the renovation of the old train station into a community center with more adult program space.

Right now, our program space is also our adult reading area, and we are constantly shifting moveable furniture, an issue that I had to consider when I wrote the grant application. I briefly thought that it might be better to hold the classes elsewhere (a Recreation Department facility or even a church meeting room), but I really wanted to make sure that people came into our building, saw the whole facility, and used our art books, a sizeable collection for a library of our size. Although the eight sessions (each lasting two hours) were somewhat disruptive, other patrons were still able to find study or reading space in our children’s and teen’s breakout rooms. Luckily the classes were held in the mornings, when those spaces were not needed for our young patrons. I think that other patrons were intrigued by what they saw happening during the sessions.

Through Lifetime Arts, I was lucky to find a teaching artist that was talented, a real people person, and completely flexible. Kim McCormack grew up in Briarcliff Manor, but has since traveled widely, including many trips to the Himalayan country of Bhutan, where she is a consultant on Special Education. She currently works throughout our region with many audiences, from children to seniors. Although I conducted several phone interviews with artists from the roster provided by Lifetime Arts, I was immediately impressed with Ms. McCormack’s enthusiasm and wide range of experience. We met, looked at the spaces available to us, and made the decision together to hold the program in the library.

I had conducted an interest survey as recommended in our training session with Lifetime Arts. We gathered information from people at the library, at senior programs organized by our village Recreation Department, and from older adults seen our library staff members who visits local senior residences. Kim’s multimedia project ideas appealed to me because we could incorporate many of the visual arts: painting, drawing, collage, and photography. Some participants also used writing in their final projects, and all attendees wrote artists’ statements.

We recruited participants through informational flyers in the library, notices in online newspapers, items in community online services, and our own library e-news. We also put out flyers in the senior residences where we had done our survey and at the programs run by our Recreation Department. Kim had already done some programs at other libraries, and a few participants were eager to take more classes with her. We soon had thirteen applicants, almost the limit we felt we could handle in our space. (We originally said that we do a maximum of fourteen.) Then we got an inquiry from a loyal library user, who had parents aged almost ninety-nine and 101. They were able to physically start the program, but the mother had severe hearing and vision problems. They would need to come with the daughter and an aide. We were able to accommodate them, but unfortunately due to increasing heath issues, they could not complete the program.

One other person dropped out because she had to care for her grandchildren, but the other participants—from ages fifty-five and older, mostly active seniors in their sixties and seventies—finished the program, although Hurricane Sandy, the resulting gas shortage, and an early snow storm wreaked havoc with our schedule. Some participants came from our local community; others came from other parts of our county. A few had significant art experience or even worked as art teachers themselves. Others had not picked up a crayon or a paint brush since leaving school, and many said that they never considered themselves as having any creative abilities.

Kim created an atmosphere from the opening session onward in which people felt comfortable doing the beginning exercises, which involved creating simple collage, sketching the human face, and testing out a variety of materials, including pencil, watercolor pencil, and oil pastels, and talking about their experiences as they used the materials. The social aspects of the class were as important as the skill-building, and all participants began to feel comfortable in their roles, both as artists and “gentle” critics.

Everyone began to ask for opinions on their work, but Kim also emphasized the importance of critically viewing your own work and experimenting with change, whether it was a background color, the color of the tape used as binding on the final portraits on foam core, or the placement of the elements of a collage that focused on the artist’s grandchildren and their athletic pursuits. The results were extremely varied, with final works that ranged from traditional realistic sketches to collages that incorporated photographs of family members.

Our first project was so successful that I applied for a second project this spring. I really wanted to work with Kim again, and she agreed. Our recent project focused on making books and creating visual journals. We decided to use the theme “Sharing Our Travels.” Many seniors who can afford to travel are visiting places around the world. Others enjoy looking back on their past trips. Some people in the program chose to highlight their creative journeys. The theme worked for everyone, although some participants had to work harder on choices for their final projects as they went through different ideas from week to week.

The first few sessions focused on different types of book structures, including pop-up, tulip, and accordion. Kim then introduced the creation of end papers replicating the beautiful designs of centuries past. She also did a painting exercise à la Eric Carle with participants using wide swathes of paint and then creating textures with all kinds of tools. Participants then took off in many different directions, bringing in their photos and memorabilia from trips, and using collage materials provided by Kim. We were also able to provide small sound recording devices to insert in the books so that people could record their own voices.

We have held two wonderful receptions and exhibits. Right now the books are arranged all around our adult reading area along with the artists’ statements. Friends and family members came to both receptions, but the public was also invited. The artists spoke quite personally about their work and their reasons for taking the class.

In formal evaluations and in their artists’ statements, some of the participants shared feelings that highlight how important this experience has been. One artist stated, “This project has inspired me to overcome the fear of the unknown. Seeking new roads in life will help me evolve into the woman I aspire to.” Another participant said, “Kim McCormack’s class has also been an adventure. Her enthusiasm and knowledge has shown the way to open up to creativity.“ Our second project drew more people with an art background, but whether they had any art experience or not, everyone enjoyed this opportunity to use new materials and techniques to create a book that will become a treasured part of their own permanent collections.

Editor’s Note: We’ll be highlighting Creative Aging programs in New York throughout April. To find out about the Creative Aging project and to read about programs in other libraries, visit the Creative Aging page.

Lifetime Arts and the ALA Public Programs Office will be presenting the preconference “80 is the New 30! Learn How Public Libraries are Delivering Proven, Inspiring and Transformative Arts Programs for Today’s Older Adults” at the 2013 ALA Annual Conference in Chicago. Register for the Conference.