By Matt Perry
World renowned for its Pacific coast beauty, Beat poetry, and rich cultural artistry, San Francisco is now home to a special events meeting place for older adults that is redefining the aging process with this creative mantra: “Art stimulates and engages the mind and body.”
For the past year, residents and neighbors of the Bethany Center Senior Housing in the city’s Mission District have been served generous artistic portions at Ruth’s Table, a creative special events meeting space for art, music, film, poetry and lectures spanning politics and culture.
“It makes me feel young,” says Margie Ramirez, a Bethany resident who regularly ventures to the ground floor space for films, lectures, art shows, and craft workshops. “It’s always something new and exciting.”
Ruth’s Table is the brainchild of Jerry Brown, director of Bethany Center, who patterned it after a similar program in Chicago.
The program’s goal: “Challenge and inspire the whole person,” says Brown.
Ending its first full year in 2011, Bethany officials anticipated just a few hundred participants at the Ruth’s Table programs. By year’s end, though, attendance swelled to nearly 4,000.
A cornerstone of Ruth’s Table is that its programs aren’t limited to senior housing residents, but are open to the surrounding Mission District community.
The range of table servings is a tasty mix: video art with students from the nearby Academy of Art; food programs with the local culinary academy; intergenerational dance by the University of San Francisco’s Dance Generators; Chinese karaoke; computer classes; and a vast variety of art programs, films, and lectures.
“Art is chocolate for the brain,” says Lola Fraknoi, program director for Ruth’s Table, quoting a pioneer in the field of art and aging, Gene D. Cohen, author of “The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life.”
As a sculptor and painter herself, Fraknoi has a keen interest in the program’s effects on residents. Art, she says, wakes up senses that have been deadened by bodily disease and cultural disenfranchisement.
“I cannot change the aging process or their relationship with their sons or daughters,” says Fraknoi. “But I can change their environment.”
The key to aging gracefully, she says, is moving forward – not looking back.
Researchers on aging agree. Founded a decade ago, the National Center for Creative Aging promotes creative expression to foster a healthy aging process. “ARTZ: Artist’s for Alzheimer’s” does the same for adults with dementia and Alzheimer’s by hosting museum tours.
Ruth’s Table is named after acclaimed artist Ruth Asawa – whose family was interned at the infamous Japanese camps in the United States during World War II – and was a student of artist and educator Josef Albers and architect Buckminster Fuller. Best known for her wire sculptures, the table she worked at was a popular meeting place for San Francisco artists, poets and politicians. Asawa’s works were shown widely at influential museums throughout the country.
Fraknoi served as associate producer for the Asawa documentary “Ruth Asawa: Roots of an Artist,” which premiered a year ago at San Francisco’s de Young Museum.
The senior center displays a number of site-specific artworks, many of them created by local Academy of Art students. The thesis piece “Boundless” was inspired when its artist Paul Harmon was caught in an active volcano in Peru; he transformed a ground floor Bethany closet into what is now fondly known by residents as “the glow room.”
“How many bosses would say ‘Oh sure, you can take the closet and make a glow room.’” says Fraknoi. “Jerry is so visionary. When you have someone at the top who really gets it, it makes it all great.”
Brown told the Bay Area Senior Health Policy Forum last fall that aging Baby Boomers are different from previous generations; they no longer want to be told by administrators what classes to take and when to take them,
“One of the successes of Ruth’s Table is that it was designed by the seniors themselves,” he said.
The program has not been cheap: expenses for the first year were $235,000. Yet Brown says that volunteers, trade outs, and college credit have kept costs from climbing higher.
Monica Lee is the center’s Artist-in-Residence who met Fraknoi at a Bethany exhibition by employees of SCRAP – the Scroungers Center for Reusable Art Parts – which sells donated artist materials such as beads, fabric, paper, and wood.
Lee now teaches four classes a month at the center, leading a wide spectrum of ethnic participants in art projects focusing on recycled materials. Two recent classes used fabric remnants to create tote bags, and transformed old books into Christmas wreaths.
She stresses that the Bethany program is unlike any other city program because it combines a wide range of ages and is open to the surrounding public.
“Because it’s a senior center, people automatically think they can’t go there or take classes,” says Lee. “Things are open to the whole community.”
Inspiration for the Bethany program came from Chicago’s Mather LifeWays’ “More Than a Café,” which Brown called “kind of like a Starbucks for people over 50.”
Brown sighs admirably when discussing Mather’s offerings, which feature a dizzying array of classes and events ranging from Laughing Yoga to opera lectures and a “Mamma Mia! Sing-Along.”
“It has a book so thick it’s almost like a community college,” he says.
In December, the Bethany center closed the popular exhibition “Russian Art Bay the Bay,” the first show focusing on Russian art in the San Francisco area in more than a quarter century.
With paintings, drawings, photos and silk screens, the show included works by 10 local artists of Russian origin, many who had never met one another.
Painter Elena Lokshina, an apartment manager and San Francisco resident, once fantasized about curating a show of this kind.
“I actually dreamed about it and tried to connect with other artists, but it was very difficult,” she says.
As for Lokshina’s paintings – all expressing the infamous Russian sadness – she says the local Russian residents all understand her work.
“People from Russia grew up with this art and can relate to this art,” she says.
At the show’s closing night, Bethany resident Larisa Morgulies looks seriously at a trio of etched watercolors – “Perestroika I, II and III” – that mirrored the cultural and political despair in Russia from 1992 through 1998.
“I like this because it is our life there,” she sighs. “It was very hard time. Everything is no (sic) working.”
Morgulies, who left the Ukraine in 1996, says she was shocked to discover the Russian exhibition at Bethany.
“Yes!” she exclaims. “Not San Francisco (but) in our building!” Morgulies also attended several of the exhibition’s accompanying lectures and films.
Central to the exhibition was Henry Elinson, a crucial figure in the post-World War II Leningrad Avant Garde art movement. Elinson was interviewed and blacklisted by the Russian KGB before defecting to the United States and settling in San Francisco before his death in 2010.
His nude figurative painting in the lobby of the building incited some controversy among more conservative residents.
Brown told concerned residents that art was akin to eating food: “You know what?” he pointed out. “I don’t like Brussels sprouts. So I don’t eat them.”
In the New Year, Ruth’s Table will feature exhibitions by Latino and Chinese artists; Bethany center houses a large contingent of both cultures.
Ramirez, a Latina, says the art programs have been ideal for bridging cultural divides.
“If you’re sitting there right next to them, you get to know them.”
Whether it’s experiencing new artwork or new people, Fraknoi is excited about the changes she sees in residents.
“The brain can still learn for a very long time.”