A first time for everything

Mary MacKay
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For the first time in her 91 years of life, Elvira Stewart tried her hand at painting and completed these two pieces, which were on display at a joint Learning Elders Arts Program (LEAP) exhibit at Geneva Villa community care facility in Charlottetown. Previous LEAP programs at Geneva Villa included button crafts, storytelling and letter writing.

Elvira Stewart, 91, taps into her painting talent through Learning Elders Arts Program at Geneva Villa

Elvira Stewart may be just shy of her 92nd birthday, but she is no wallflower when it comes to trying new things.

In fact, she was super keen to try her hand at painting for the first time through a Learning Elders Arts Program (L.E.A.P.) that was being offered at Geneva Villa community care facility in Charlottetown where she now lives.

“I like the way it comes together. When you start painting it looks very blank, but when you start putting the paint on it seems to come alive,” says Stewart, whose inspiration was a painting that fellow Geneva Villa resident Freda Rostant made during last year’s instructional L.E.A.P. program.

“She painted (a lovely picture), and I just thought to myself ‘She painted that and she’s (close to 90).’

So I thought when it came again I was going to take it up.”

During the 10-week program, Cavendish artist Susan Christensen shared her passion for her chosen profession with the residents and other seniors who live off-site who also participated in the free sessions, which are administered through the P.E.I. Senior Citizens Federation and funded through the P.E.I. Department of Tourism and Culture.

It was Christensen’s third time as a L.E.A.P. program instructor.

“I teach seniors the same way I teach everyone else. I just figure everyone can learn how to do it, it’s just a matter of applying yourself,” she says.

“I have my own method of teaching, it’s my own design. I use it with everyone and I find that it’s very successful.”

Many of her senior students, like Stewart, had not painted before, but they didn’t let that hinder the creative process.

“She dove into it and I use her as inspiration for some of my other students in saying ‘If someone who is 91 can jump into it with both feet for the first time, anyone can,” says Christensen, who is always amazed at the amount of untapped talent out there.

“It’s fun. I love it. I get just as excited about someone discovering it in themselves as I did the first time I discovered it in myself (just 10 years ago).”

Because of Stewart’s longstanding love of nature, a spotted butterfly was her first subject choice.

“I also thought it would be easiest, but it was a little harder than I thought,” she laughs.

Not only was the actual hands-on painting part of the program a learning experience, it was her first time discovering the wonders of mixing paint using the three primary colours — red, yellow and blue — on the colour palette.

“There are three different colours, and they will make pretty near every colour of the rainbow, which I never knew before,” she says.

L.E.A.P. participants were given primary images that they could stencil onto their canvas and then proceed to paint.

Before long, Stewart had completed her very first painting and began working on her second, which was a goldfinch.

“(Elvira) never missed a class. The whole winter she was there faithfully, every Tuesday morning at 9:30,” syas Geneva Villa’s activity director John O’Hanley.

“I was always looking forward to Tuesdays,” she adds with a smile.

It’s not the first time that Stewart has ventured beyond her familiar comfort zone.

After knitting all her life since the age of seven, she decided at the adventuresome age of 85 to start entering some of her colourful ripple-patterned afghans, stuffed animals and other handcrafted pieces into competitions at the P.E.I. Provincial Exhibition during Old Home Week and Provincial Plowing Match and Agricultural Fair in Dundas.

“I got first prize for every afghan I sent in,” says Stewart, who has the more than 150 prize ribbons that she’s garnered from both annual events to date gracing one wall in her room.

She also intends to enter one of her paintings in local competitions this year.

This particular L.E.A.P. program may be over, but it has had lasting effects on its senior participants.

“Some of the residents want to continue so they’re going to work on their own when the class is finished,” O’Hanley says.

“It’s a new adventure for people. That’s what we keep on trying to tell people, this is not a place to come and sit in your rocking chair. We want people to explore new avenues. I tell people this is a new chapter in their life and let’s try to see what else they could learn; it could be new games, new sports, or whatever. We’re never too old to learn something new in life.”

Organizations: Geneva Villa, P.E.I. Senior Citizens Federation, PEI Department

Geographic location: Charlottetown, Dundas

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