First Installment, April 12, 2023—Although based on real events, all names are fictitious except for Sarah and a few others.
Beyond the Tunnel: the Arts and Aging in America was published some thirty years ago, based on my experiences bringing art appreciation and the cultural resources of the art museum to older adults in the Washington, D.C. community through my non-profit organization Museum One, Inc. The world has changed since then, sometimes for the better, other times not so positively.
The concept of the tunnel was based on an actual nursing home I visited frequently in the 1980s. The facility still exists although it has been turned into an assisted living facility that I hope has been modernized. Yet, the tunnel is a state of mind, representing the ageism that continues to permeate our society. Ultimately, Beyond the Tunnel is simply a story—human and I hope, enduring—as well as a reflection of our society and ourselves.
The next chapters are about my quest to bring the vision of art to other Sarahs living in their tunnels.
Chapter 19, part I
Within the Tabernacle of Art
A congregation of aging reverends and street people, solitary widows and mentally ill individuals, ordinary parishioners and struggling pensioners flocked every Tuesday morning, starting that October, into the church’s upstairs room for my sermons on art. Skinny ladies with diminutive bonnets squeezed next to heavyset friends in stretch pants, dapper men in slick three-piece suits mingled with worn fellows in baggy hand-me-downs. An interracial and bilingual offering in temporary communion.
We seemed high above the downtown city on the fifth floor of the States Church, protected from the rush and peril of the traffic and urban existence below. This was the sanctuary of Abraham Lincoln and Peter Marshall, its red brick structure standing like an island fortress on the avenue crossroads, straddling the decaying and resurgent metropolis. On the west, freshly built office buildings advertised their ready occupancy, while to the east, cranes and scaffolding threatened, destined to destroy the housing of some of the very students who attended my class.
Hymnals and Bibles abounded, wedged haphazardly between rows of stiff folding chairs in our meeting space. In front, a makeshift pulpit of imitation wood waited for the next preacher, in contrast to the solid oak prayer stand, velvet cushioned and ornately carved, nearby. The walls were unadorned except for a monotone picture of a youthful Jesus and an amateurish reproduction of the Last Supper, thankfully eclipsed during our hourly session by the slide screen.
The aromatic smells of stewing chicken or baking pie sometimes penetrated our gathering, stimulating en masse the group’s salivary glands. Lunch at the States Church Senior Center was officially served at the stroke of noon, several of my participants exiting early to secure their places in the long lines. Meals were available in the auditorium just outside–a large, drafty hall converted into a dining area–from Monday through Friday, courtesy of the citywide senior nutrition network with its accompanying social and activities programs.
Fran, the director, was the lifeblood of the center–it shepherdess and guide, healer and confidante. She was a middle-aged woman (and grandmother) with short peppered hair, electric eyes, and the laugh of a comedienne. A whirling matrix of manic energy, dashing and darting in all directions, coping simultaneously with a complexity of problems: a missing lunch, a late cab, an incorrect income tax, the grief of a widowed spouse, a lost apartment, and the host of prophets and historical figures (a number of them members of my sessions) who regularly tested her sanity.
“Did you know the prophets Isaiah met today?” she breathlessly informed me one morning upon my arrival, stopping briefly in her usual run around the room. “And boy, did they get into it! Because, of course, each one was convinced that he was the true Isaiah! It was even wilder than the time Abraham Lincoln had lunch here,” she exclaimed, erupting into the madcap giggle that always reminded me of Lucille Ball.
Fran’s humor, though, disguised the depth of her sympathy and concern. For, more than anyone, she understood the hardships and tragedies of the center’s daily inhabitants, who from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. were so completely entrusted in her care.
Mr. Haas was always striving to be my star pupil, transporting his hallelujahs, praise the lords, and amens with him into class. A white-haired ruddy-complexioned man, perennially wearing fire-engine red pants that emphasized the bent and crooked profile of his bowed legs. His accent sounded Appalachian, distinctive but not harsh; his manners (at least to me) were of a rather rustic southern gentleman, graciously polite, almost self-effacing.
Yet while his peers were reacting to the paintings on a more earthly level, Mr. Haas would proclaim or declaim from his regular seat of judgement on my left. Righteous pronouncements, imagined messages directly from God, the angel Gabriel, or another Christian oracle. Sometimes exaltations of ecstasy, rapidly followed by cries of mockery and derision.
“The Lord does wonderful works,” he shouted once, his gaze transfixed on the vision before him, when I showed a beautiful seascape of Winslow Homer. However, later, after viewing what appeared to be an innocuous portrayal of a fisherwoman, also by Homer, he ranted with all the wrath of the Old Testament deity, “The Lord punishes the wicked.”
Other seers and self-appointed ministers graced the lectures with their presence, although none were as volatile or extreme in behavior as Mr. Haas. Many were called initially to the church center by the spirit of their faith—and the promise of a nutritious meal. Yet, I eventually discovered, an even larger portion of my students were elderly deinstitutionalized patients, participating in the States Church Senior Center as part of their recovery and reentry into the general community.
I would have never known, in most cases, if Fran had not told me, that somehow the sane and mentally disturbed were abiding harmoniously within our tabernacle of art. Deborah, the shy, thin brown woman with a reverence for beauty; Mrs. Land, the white, middle-class matron who traveled across town especially for the art programs; the bald-domed Reverend Jones, attired in fine vested suits, matching his shiny mahogany pate.
Or Vera, a talkative, hefty black retiree who once picked cotton; Consuela, alias Connie, our slide projectionist; Mrs. Yu, who seemed unable to utter a single word in English; and Dr. Max, a goateed, absent-minded violinist with a university past. And in the far back, an irregular chorus of homeless wanderers (although their exact housing status quo was not determinable) visiting this week, next month, or the upcoming year: the purple kerchiefed woman who hailed, as she compulsively declared to all passersby, from Vermont, or a ragged man with matted beard, unknown and unbathed, or a neatly dressed onlooker who furtively assumed the seat nearest the door, prepared to exit if necessary.
For four years we religiously met, our population sometimes stretching to 25 souls, declining on off days, to a loyal 10. “That’s a real natural,” seemed to be the group’s highest compliment to a work of art. I introduced them to numerous artists and movements, attempting to expand into African-American and Hispanic art, as well as the folk art of Grandma Moses, Horace Pippin, and Minnie Evans.
But they loved Rembrandt…..
COMING TOMORROW: REMBRANDT, THEIR SPECIAL ARTIST
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