After Georgia Titonis, the librarian at Boston Public Library’s Upham’s Corner Branch, participated in the City of Boston’s Creative Corps workshop, the PACE (Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly) art project emerged.
The Creative Corps workshop focused on bringing arts experiences into neighborhoods that have a lower concentration of free, public arts activities, and serving Boston neighborhoods that have been hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. The workshop helped city departments create projects around an identified problem.
“In our case, the problem was how to help older Bostonians use art to process the emotions of the last few years,” Georgia said.
With a Creative Corps grant and potential for a community partnership, Georgia contacted Nancy Roach, Upham’s Community Care’s Chief PACE Program Officer. Nancy believed that the art therapy project would allow the PACE participants to process the emotional toll of the pandemic. The final piece became finding an artist to facilitate the program.
Brenda Echeverry, an expressive arts therapy master’s student at Lesley University, was the perfect fit. Brenda graduated from New York University with a degree in psychology and has long been passionate about mental health and using art as a vehicle for healing. Looking for a way to give back to her Dorchester community, she was excited to facilitate the PACE art project.
Brenda believes in the restorative nature of self-portraits. “Self-portraits are a really great way to represent yourself in your creative work,” she noted. “When you go through a difficult experience like COVID, it’s important to be able to reflect on what changed within you. It’s very individually focused and allows you to get your emotions out.”
In the fall of 2022, each of the three PACE day centers (Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Roxbury), which regularly hold activities and provide various health care services for participants, would host two art therapy sessions with Brenda, with both sessions lasting approximately two hours. Participants at all three locations were invited to participate in the project.
Robin* has been in the PACE program for a couple of years and heard about the art therapy project through Jeff Fowler, the Roxbury PACE Center Manager. “I wanted to participate because it helps me keep memories of my granddaughter and it helps me do things that I love to do. I love to draw, and I like to do fancy things—so I love doing art.”
Robin’s portrait was in the shape of a young woman with short, brown hair and a wide grin. A cross with the words “Jesus Saves” hung around her neck, and two purple hearts framed either side of her smile. Underneath a bouquet of floral stickers lists her name, “Brianna Renee”.
Only 19-years-old, Brianna was killed on impact by an 18-wheeler truck. As she shared her granddaughter’s sudden passing, Robin’s voice wavered. Her gregarious personality was overtaken suddenly by grief and loss.“This project helps me to remember the times that we had together. And how much I hurt and miss her. It helps me to never forget her. She was my life.”
As she worked on her portrait, Robin proudly shared memories of her granddaughter and the love in her voice seemed to fill up every inch of the room. Even the portrait’s smallest details were a testament to their bond. And, the marker Robin used to embellish her portrait was purple, Brianna’s favorite color.
When asked what she has learned about herself by participating in the art therapy program, Robin’s broad smile slowly returned. “I never thought of myself as an artist before, but I think I have some talent. I don’t mean to seem too proud of myself, but I am!”
Maria*, another PACE participant, agreed with Robin’s findings. “I’ve always liked art and painting. I feel like I’m not the most skillful, with either my thinking or my hands, but I still think I can do something beautiful.” Maria has previous experience working on a group painting project at the Jamaica Plain PACE center, and echoed the pride Robin expressed when seeing her completed art piece. “When they display the artwork, it’s like,-wow, I did that? It’s amazing!”
Alongside the PACE participant’s creative conclusions, as the instructor Brenda has gained new insight into the creative process. “I’ve learned to be patient for myself and for them and to also acknowledge the fear of the blank canvas. They can get paralyzed. I notice sometimes I have to say to them: okay, let’s just focus on one art material. And then we can go from there. There’s no right or wrong to it.”
Brenda successfully maintained a delicate balance of being hands-off and closely attentive. She would often kneel down by the participant’s side to ask how they were doing and to show them how to use new materials they may have not considered. Brenda brought over a bag of different colored ink squares and small rubber stamps for a PACE participant with schizophrenia. She carefully showed her the different colors that she could choose from, and demonstrated how to use the stamps on a scrap piece of paper. While nearly all of the PACE participants were limited either in their mobility, verbal, or mental capabilities, it seemed that the concept of self-portraiture overcame any and all barriers.
Brenda had thoughts on the accessibility of the self-portraits and the project’s impact on the participants. “The first thing is just allowing them to create, and create together. Even if they don’t take it as far as I expected or planned, just giving them the opportunity to create is the first way it impacts them.”
If specific art materials helped bridge the accessibility gap, the sense of comradery amongst the PACE participants alleviated any anxiety. Robin was honest about her lack of art experience. “I’ve never done this before, it’s all brand new to me! I enjoyed working on this project because of the people.”
Even the layout of the room reinforced the sense of community. The long, banquet-styled tables were set up so that the participants faced each other. There was a platter of colorful cupcakes for everyone to share, and decorations for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday lined the walls. Brenda commented that the supportive environment of the PACE center has been one of her favorite aspects of the project. “I really enjoyed observing them encouraging each other. When they hear their peers telling them that their portrait is beautiful, I think that is so exciting. Because they’re showing love for each other.”
*PACE Participant’s last names have been omitted for privacy purposes.
Public Exhibit! The PACE Art Exhibit starts Saturday, May 20, 12pm at the Boston Public Library Upham’s Corner branch, 500 Columbia Road, Boston.
Learn more by about our PACE program by clicking here.