Making friends through art

Seventeen years ago, two women got chatting at an Elphin Lodge retirement village social and discovered a shared love of art.

Thinking it would be fun to hold art mornings, they chatted to a few other residents and shortly thereafter, five ladies became the first members of the Elphin Lodge Art Group.

Little did Olive Jew and Cecily Zetzer know what a difference they were to make to scores of residents over the next few years.

The group has allowed like-minded men and women to get together, dabble in paint and pencil, share ideas and encourage each other’s pursuits.

As long-time member of the group, Isobel Kohll, said: “Unless you want to retire in anonymity, you need to get involved, contribute and find pursuits that make you happy.”

Beautifully outspoken and outgoing, the 95-year-old says she joined the group all those years ago because she wanted to challenge herself to try something new.

“I had taught dancing, music and elocution lessons but had never attempted to draw,” she remembers.

“I wanted to join but had absolutely no experience. In fact, I could not even draw a straight line. When I expressed this concern to Cecily, she said, ‘Who is asking you to draw a line?’.

“It is the best group I have ever been part of. Everyone is so sweet and encouraging. They helped me but never criticised. I have learnt so much, which is important when you retire,” said Isobel.

The social at which the idea for the art group was conceived had been organised by village resident Ruth Greek, who regularly hosted village coffee mornings to give residents a chance to interact and get to know one another.

She too became a member of the art group.

“I was a scribbler,” she remembers of her early efforts. “I was more into the chocolate cake that was served than I was into my drawing.”

That is the beauty of the group – it welcomes both serious artists and dabblers with equal warmth, giving them the chance to be around compatible individuals in a nurturing environment.

Now 91, Ruth remains passionate about supporting as many of the village’s social events as she can.

The art group has had a number of instructors over the years, with artist and fellow resident June Branthwaite the current coach. June is a talented artist who has taken everyone under her wing. She is a proud associate of the Watercolour Society of South Africa and has participated in many exhibitions.

“She is a great aid to the class,” said member Sandra Dimant.

John Cowen, who today plays a big organisational role in the group, remembers arriving at the village as a new resident over 11 years ago.

“I was shy and intimidated but Olive, Cecily, Ruth and other group members were so kind and welcoming,” he said.

New member Denise Friedrichs, a few years short of 70, is the baby of the group.

While she has always loved art, it was only when she retired a year ago that she could invest more time into her hobby.

“I just love my art family,” she said.

Interestingly, Denise is a second-generation Elphin Lodge resident.

Her parents, Jack and Gertie Ferneyhough, now both deceased, were happy residents of the retirement village.

Ian Petersen joined the group about a year ago and says apart from learning a new skill, everyone has been fantastically friendly.

Barry Tedder’s reasons for joining the group in March are bittersweet.

His move to the village this time last year necessitated huge downsizing and his cottage was stacked high with boxes for some time.

When unpacking one of them, he discovered a set of paints his late wife had bought him many years ago, with a note attached, reading: I hope you enjoy your new activity.

“It had not been opened,” he said.

He shares that his daughters were very passionate about art and he had always been interested in what they were doing, which motivated his gift of paints.

While he wishes he had used the paints back then, the Elphin Art Group has given him the platform to give credence to the motto, ‘Better late than never’.

John said Elphin Lodge complex manager Helen Petrie has been unbelievably supportive.

“A few years ago, she supplied each of us with a small canvas and challenged us to create appropriate artwork for the village shop,” he said.

The result was an assortment of paintings depicting the type of goods that could be purchased there, and they are still on display in the shop.

Ethelwynne van Eck can attest to the power of the group.

She had taken up art in her 40s and sold dozens of oil paintings.

Then, in 2015, she had a stroke and soon thereafter moved into Ron Smith Care Centre at Elphin Lodge.

“My right side was affected and I was very sad because I thought I would never paint again. The situation changed when I was invited to join the art group, as an art tutor or advisor. I was at first a little hesitant but agreed to go and meet the people.

“I am so glad I went, because they all welcomed me so graciously and I started attending the group every Tuesday. However,I didn’t want to just advise other people, I wanted to belong to the group as an artist and be one of them. When I saw the others drawing and painting, I was inspired to try again.

“So I started to bring along pencils and a sketch book and trained myself to draw with my left hand. I began sketching simple shapes and soon found I could draw again. After my success with drawing, I decided to try painting in acrylics and watercolours and currently, I am endeavouring to paint with oils, as it is my favourite medium.”

Zabeth Zühlsdorff, Rand Aid’s general manager for services and advance division, said the joy of belonging to this group was tangible and the residents have changed their own and others’ lives for the better over so many years.

Anyone from any of Rand Aid’s villages are welcome to join the group, which meets each Tuesday at the village clubhouse at 9.30am.

No experience is needed. The only requirement is that you are keen to try your hand at painting or drawing.

For more information call John at 011 346 0316, Barry at 011 882 0234 or June at 011 346 2138.

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