This virtual art group became a ‘lifesaver’ for these Hamilton seniors

·4 min read

After COVID-19 disrupted the world more than a year ago, a challenge arose that hit older residents especially hard: with many facilities closed and seniors asked to stay at home, what was there to do to pass time?

Brenda Vrkljan, professor of occupational therapy at McMaster University, says for older adults, it’s important to find something meaningful to do until everyone can be vaccinated and life can return to some sense of normalcy.

For Vrkljan’s mother, Dagmar, that something is art. Before the pandemic, Dagmar and a group of friends met to do art together. When COVID-19 cancelled their plans, their group went virtual. Now, they paint and draw at home and share their work in weekly online meetups.

Brenda shares the Zoom invite each week, but the group does the rest. The arrangement came with unexpected surprises, members say.

“Once we started to paint on our own during the week, everybody got better,” Dagmar says.

The members come from a range of backgrounds and artistic abilities — from beginners picking up a paintbrush for the first time to pros who’ve spent years in the industry.

One of them, Bruce Repei, is a former art teacher who worked for 30 years as a scenic artist and a stage designer in professional theatre. After he lost his vision, he joined the group to offer his expertise.

Every Tuesday, the group — which is closed to new members at the moment — gathers on Zoom to share their work. But they’re not just passing the time — between friendly banter and peels of laughter come serious critiques.

Dagmar, the group’s unofficial leader (“We don’t have elections!” she quips), shares her screen and pulls up each member’s art one by one. Some are watercolours, others are pen and ink. They recreate household items, memorable photos and sights from around the city.

“A lot can be learned from observation,” says Repei at a recent session.

Dagmar shares an image of one of Repei’s stage backdrops, painted in watercolour. The sketch depicts a wheeled table with paint cans against a backdrop with a black armchair, brown cabinets, and multicoloured canvases along the walls.

Repei says it’s a preliminary design, but Dagmar marvels, “I think this could be a painting as is.”

Another member, Lynn Shaw, says the group has been “a lifesaver.” She’s a beginner, but a casual observer would never know from her art — like a work depicting an orchid which Dagmar displays for the group.

“I like to see what people can do with their hands,” Shaw says.

At the end of each session, the group decides on an assignment for the next week. This time, it’s to continue working with pen and ink. (One of the members doesn’t use technology, so another member prints off homework and delivers it through a socially distanced drop-off.)

Brenda says activities like the art group help bring purpose to people’s lives.

“Some of us who are of a working age, we have our job,” she says. “For older people, if they have the privilege of retiring or no longer looking after the kids ... how do you find purpose and meaning?”

Members say that part of the joy is in the challenge art presents.

“Occupation is a dynamic thing,” Brenda adds. “We never stop learning and growing.”

Here’s some of the work produced by the artists and what art — and the group — means to them:

Diane Milliard, 80

Her inspiration: “I really like portraiture. I’m just getting back into it again ... It inspires you because if you get a likeness, which I usually do, or you capture something of the stance of the person, you really feel good about it and it encourages you to go on trying something else.”

Dagmar Vrkljan, 72

“My father was an artist. I grew up with art.”

Her pen and ink of Edward’s Park: “It looked like a little wilderness in my neighbourhood because we don’t venture past our neighbourhood. ... I just discovered the whole world there, so I was looking and I had my phone and I took a couple of pictures and that’s what came out.”

Ken Lockwood, 71

“I tend to paint my memories which is why I don’t sell my work. For me, it’s very personal. Not only do I enjoy doing it, but then later, if I walk by and I see the picture, it brings back the memories.”

Lynn Shaw, 71

“We all support each other. We give constructive critique from which we learn an awful lot. I’ve learned from the women and men in this group on a weekly basis. For me, I learn as much there as I’ve learnt in any class I’ve taken.”

Maria Iqbal, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator