Portraits of Life

Project goes beyond KPC walls

Posted: Sunday, December 11, 2005


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  Betty Onse converses with Frank Muse during a class at the Kenai Senior Citizens Center. The meetings were held for Kenai Peninsula College students to get to know the senior citizens while drawing their portraits. Photos courtesy of Kenai Peninsu

Fran Pease poses as Chad Mello draws an outline of her face at the Kenai Senior Citizens Center. Students from Kenai Peninsula College spent three class periods visiting and drawing their senior partners.

Photos courtesy of Kenai Peninsu

Images of aging men and women line the walls of the Kenai Peninsula College commons and library. These are not famous faces of those who contributed to higher education, but everyday citizens in Alaska. Each portrait or color photograph wordlessly expresses the lives of the seniors while capturing their spirit of living.

The project is a culmination of three Kenai Peninsula College classes that participated in a project of intergeneration communication with senior citizens. Some students took color photographs of area elders, and beginning drawing students spent time interviewing seniors and drawing portraits to depict the time of life they are in.

After the portraits were finished, students in the writing in social and natural sciences class interviewed the drawing students for bibliographical material to display underneath the artists’ explanation of senior portraits

Celia Anderson, KPC art program director, said the project was about breaking down stereotypes of the elderly and youth. She said some in her class did not have experience communicating with those from another era.

“There are benefits way beyond the initial meeting and greeting,” she said.


A portrait of Evelyn Crumley, drawn by Ruth Griess, accompanies a poem written by Crumley.

Photos courtesy of Kenai Peninsu

Evelyn Crumley, 88, lives at Vintage Pointe Manor senior housing center in Kenai. She partnered with KPC student Ruth Griess for the project.

“I enjoyed it,” Crumley said. “I feel sort of honored to have had it done.”

She met many of the students and said spending time with youths keeps her young. Crumley and Griess met at the center and Crumley’s home, where she shared her poetry with Griess. Poetry is one of many hobbies for Crumley, and she was pleased to see one of her poems written next to her finished portrait.

“I thought it was a great idea,” she said. “I think the poem sort of expresses my personality,” she said.


Bill Osborn sits still while Reggie Brown captures his image.

Photos courtesy of Kenai Peninsu

Pat Lytle, a student in Anderson’s drawing class, said she had never drawn portraits before. The first part of the class showed students how to draw more than what is plain to the naked eye.

“Getting away from the idea of what something looks like,” she said.

She said the class first practiced drawing each other. The end product was pretty funny to look at, she said.

“We had some real caricatures,” she said.

Lytle said that the experience helped familiarize students with drawing others.

“We got over our fear of drawing another person,” she said.

Yet for Lytle, the idea of drawing the seniors was still intimidating. But when the class first met at the Kenai Senior Citizens Center, Lytle set aside her reluctance and took on the task of drawing three individuals, all with different backgrounds and personalities.

Lytle’s name was picked by one woman, and shortly after another approached her.

“She came up to me and said, ‘Can you draw me, too?’” Lytle said.

She accepted, and then approached a man she knew named Glen Johnson. She asked him if he had a partner. When he told her he did not, she took it upon herself to include him in her work.

“I am enjoying this so much,” she said.

During the process, Lytle said she received more information about the three seniors than she knew what to do with.

“I kind of wish I could write a book about their experiences,” she said.

Instead, she was able to capture hobbies, travel and the personalities of her subjects into three works she will give the seniors.

While the portraits were to be line drawings, Lytle said she used a alternate method to draw Glen Johnson’s portrait to show the rustic life he has lived.

“His portrait is drawn with a twig dipped in ink,” she said. “That’s all good in this kind of picture.”

Lytle said she also drew a map of South America behind the man in the portrait because he and his wife spent years there as missionaries.

For the quiet-spoken woman named Dorothy Thompson, she used a technique called stippling, where small dots are created with pen and ink. Behind the woman are embossed picture frames, since she has a large family and has many framed pictures in her home.


Betty Onse converses with Frank Muse during a class at the Kenai Senior Citizens Center. The meetings were held for Kenai Peninsula College students to get to know the senior citizens while drawing their portraits.

Photos courtesy of Kenai Peninsu

For the last portrait, Lytle did a line drawing of Peggy Meyer, a homesteader who also has a large family. Lytle said family is important to the woman, so a quilt she made for her granddaughter was drawn behind her in the portrait, as if it is giving Meyer a hug.

“She is a very colorful, outgoing person,” Lytle said.

While the project went well for Lytle, she said it was hard in the beginning because she wanted to please everyone — her teacher and subjects. But she learned through the process that her happiness with the finished product was most important.

“I am going to draw this the way I want to draw it,” she said.

After Meyer’s portrait was complete, Lytle said Meyer’s daughter saw the creation and recognized the woman as her mother. Lytle said that was good enough for her.


Leila Mitchell examines the face of Earl Jones at the Kenai Senior Citizens Center.

Photos courtesy of Kenai Peninsu

“That is the best compliment of all,” she said.

According to Anderson, the college received a $2,000 grant from the University of Alaska Anchorage Center of Community Engagement. Other funding came from Supporting Actions for Engagement from Learn and Serve America. The project was envisioned as a yearly program to teach art course content while making a significant connection with a facet of the community outside the classroom. The money went to fund reusable framing supplies, color photographic supplies and a reception that was held Dec. 4.

Understanding the value of a person from a different generation was a positive byproduct of the project, Anderson said.

She said while the project was a required assignment for the students, the participation from senior citizens was positive.

“We had more seniors that we had drawing students for,” Anderson said.

After the 13 pairs had been chosen, the students asked their senior partners a series of open-ended questions to get a feel of who they were and what they had lived through.

Students ages 15 to 60 from the beginning drawing class met with senior citizens at the Kenai senior center to get acquainted, as well as explain the process of drawing portraits.

Jayne Jones, instructor of the color photography class, said her students learned how to work with color photography before and through the project. They studied the color of light, color theory, working with artificial light and strengthening their recognition of different qualities of natural light.

“With this project the students integrate their newly learned technical skills with the challenge of creating an expressive photographic of a stranger,” Jones said.

She said the partnership is positive for the students. Before students took the seniors’ pictures, the students took self-portraits to show what they were doing. Many of the self-portraits mimic the end result of the senior photographs.

“By partnering with the senior center the students have had the opportunity to see the challenges, the kindness and the sense of humor that is often a necessary part of a person’s life as they slow down and grow older,” she said.

Rachael Craig, director of the Kenai senior center, said she was delighted with the idea of the program when approached by Anderson and Jones.

“I had been wanting to have a working relationship with the college and our seniors in some way. Intergenerational projects of these types can be so beneficial to each generation,” she said.

“The response of the seniors was overwhelming. During each class visit, it seemed we had our seniors that were involved with the project as well as seniors that were really curious about the project want to watch and maybe even wish they were participating. There was a lot of interaction between the students and the seniors, which we were hoping for.”

Craig said she hoped the project helped all age groups realize what could be learned from aging Alaskans.

“For our youth, seniors bring heritage, tradition, rights of passage to share and teach our youth. Seniors have a wealth of information and knowledge about history and life experiences,” she said.

The portraits will be on display at KPC through January.

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