NEWINGTON - A new decade brought an end to a unique, volunteer-driven program in town.
“The Last Picture Show” was the finale of the Newington Senior & Disabled Center’s Art Exhibit, which came down the first week of January. It offered a retrospective glance at art by 10 local creators, among 50 featured in this gallery over the last 10 years.
The gallery was located inside the cafeteria, rotating works by a different artist every two months. Over the years it spread into the main entrance area as well, greeting visitors coming in and out of the building.
Unbeknownst to many, volunteers and center members Peggy Smolack and Ann Garbiel were the program’s curators. Now ages 88 and 80, respectively, the pair decided their involvement must come to an end. With no immediate replacements stepping up, the program will also conclude.
Bringing the expertise of a professional graphic designer, Garbiel was originally recruited by Smolack, who taught art in town for many years and was a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design. The two identified the need for a more visually appealing senior center café and set off to find and feature artists from the Newington area, ages 55 and up. They never imagined what they’d encounter.
“We spent many, many hours visiting homes, picking the art; it was a process,” Garbiel recalls, admiring a portrait by John Bower, one of the artists whose work was featured several times over the years. “It’s been fun.”
Among other works in the final exhibit: a watercolor by Melanie Stoddard of two men in Ireland; a grandchild on the beach by Phyllis Small, and an exquisite oil depiction of an angel’s trumpet flower, by Maria Vilcinskas.
Members and visitors alike have served as passive witnesses and active viewers as the art on the walls changed. But the self-sustained Art Exhibit Committee dissolved by its own charge.
“It’s a lot of physical work, standing and hanging pictures,” says Garbiel, who volunteers her time at the senior center almost daily in a variety of capacities. A recent battle with breast cancer barely kept her away, in fact.
“We’ve met some wonderful people doing this,” Smolack points out. “We’ve made friends whether we wanted to or not. It’s been more than coordinating art; it’s been like a ministry for us.”
Their hope for the future is that other artists can help to curate and showcase inspiration and creativity in the facility.
“I think the possibility of having art from people of all ages here is fantastic,” Smolack says. “What is needed now is a person or cultural arts group that can take over where we left off. The ground has been broken. Newington and this area have many artists and budding artists. We as seniors can encourage young artists by showing their work and recent graduates from art school can help us envision new ways of making and seeing art.”
The ladies were thrilled to learn that Newington Public Schools’ Yearly District-wide Art Show was in need of a new location this spring, while the Town Hall is under construction.
“They’ve decided to have it here in the gymnasium,” Smolack says, pointing down the hallway.
The Newington Art League - of which she is a member - is another group still on the hunt for a permanent home.
Garbiel reminisces about some of the artists they’ve met over the years and the joy the exhibit has brought visitors.
“One of the most memorable times for me was when a senior center member from West Hartford could not believe her eyes as she passed the Chinese brush painting exhibit in the foyer. The artist, Hsiao-Chiang Chen, had moved into my neighborhood and I immediately asked if she would like to exhibit. It happens that the artist was the teacher of Kathy Chow (the center visitor) in Taiwan many years before. Since Kathy wished to meet her teacher, now elderly, I invited them all to my home for tea and a very happy reunion.”
Kathleen Brooks, 57, stopped by last week to pick up several of her pieces, which she plans to donate to a museum.
“I studied French impressionism and encaustic and combined the two styles to create my own technique,” Brooks explains of the work.
When her husband passed away at age 50 last June, she immersed herself in creating.
“It was quite a challenge to go on living without him when I expected to have him another 30 years,” Brooks said. “I threw myself into art and it’s filled the void of the loss.”
Another void and loss have taken place at the senior center. How they will be filled has yet to be determined.
“As this program ends, the Senior Center is exploring ways to replace the exhibit areas with new visual exhibits,” Director Dianne Stone says. “We welcome volunteers with artistic experience to lead and coordinate all possibilities.”
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at 860-801-5097 or firstname.lastname@example.org.