When 85-year-old Gerry Fairbanks sits down in front of a blank canvas, she says her paintbrush might just as well be a magic wand.
“Painting is magic to me,” she said during an oil-painting class at Cypress Court retirement community in Escondido, Calif. “To start off with a blank page and all of a sudden you have something? That’s magical.”
Fairbanks started painting about 20 years ago when she began losing her hearing. It was one of the few recreational activities she could enjoy without the necessity of sound. She’s now a regular at the weekly oils classes led by art instructor Janice Eakin. Recently, Fairbanks was painting a violin with a pair of songbirds perched on its neck. Among her fellow students, she’s known for her beautiful birds.
Fairbanks now has a cochlear implant, which has improved her hearing, particularly in quiet spaces like the painting class. She’s one of many Cypress Court painters who, in spite of physical limitations, have found unbridled freedom through a paintbrush.
Eakin’s students include residents who are recovering from strokes, battling hand tremors and arthritis and suffer from failing vision, among other age-related issues. Some are novice painters, some are accomplished. All share the same desire to create in whatever ways they can. Case in point: Former student Louise Nielson, 100, who learned to paint with her left hand after a stroke disabled her right. She passed away last year.
Judy Lucous, wellness director at Cypress Court, said she’s inspired every week when she visits the painting class.
“I love how everyone interacts with each other and how they inspire the other residents here,” Lucous said. “It shows how it’s never too late to try something new.”
John Call, 96, has macular degeneration. He has lost all vision in his left eye and has only limited vision in his right. But with Eakin’s help he has found a creative way to paint over the past three years. Eakin mixes Call’s colors and when he puts brush to canvas he follows the motion of her finger to direct his brush strokes. After the paint dries, Eakin goes back in with a black marker to add outlines to his somewhat shapeless forms.
Call’s favorite painting is a riverscape near the Valley of the Kings in Upper Egypt. A felucca boat with a lateen sail rests on a sandy shore near a mudbrick home and palm tree grove. It’s a scene he remembers well from his 20 years working in the U.S. Foreign Service, including three years in Cairo. He visited this very village in the mid-1950s.
Ruth Gelgand, 86, learned how to paint many years ago from a close friend who studied art in Mexico City. But she didn’t really put her training to work until she moved into Cypress Court from Valley Center four years ago.
On this day, Gelgand was starting on a still life of fruits, including a plum, pear, eggplant and mango. After drawing the outline of the fruits on her canvas with a pencil, she mixed her colors with a bit of help from Eakin and began painting. Because her right hand shakes a bit, she stabilizes her brush with her left hand. She also appreciates the forgiving nature of oils, which can be painted over easily once they’re dry.
“I like the challenge in trying to do something more difficult each time,” Gelgand said. “When I’m painting, the time goes by very fast. It’s relaxing.”
Eakin first discovered painting in high school and has studied art under professional painters in San Diego. She has worked for Kisco Senior Living, which owns Cypress Court, for 25 years and started teaching art there in 2008. She teaches two 90-minute classes every Thursday and draws 5 to 8 residents to each class.
When she first started the classes, Eakin said her instructions were more formal, with step-by-step instructions and every participant painting the same picture. Now, she encourages residents to paint whatever they like. Some residents bring in their own family or vacation photos for inspiration, other ideas are drawn from greeting cards, calendar art and museum paintings.
Fairbanks said she likes Eakin’s style of instruction. Eakin can provide expert advice when it’s requested, but she isn’t overbearing.
“She helps me find colors and mix colors,” Fairbanks said. “Sometimes I get stuck and she helps me get unstuck.”
Cathie Martin, 76, is Eakin’s newest student. A 1-year resident of Cypress Court, she joined the class two weeks ago and on Thursday morning was putting the final touches on her first painting, a vase of large daisy-like cut flowers. Martin has a tremor in her hands, so she can’t do detail work with a paintbrush. Eakin helped her choose a subject that lends itself well to broad, impressionistic brushstrokes.
“I love the color, lots of color and I love mixing the colors. It’s fun,” she said.
Eakin’s oldest student is Zola Brink, 102, who likes painting landscapes in addition to playing bridge two to three days a week and volunteering in the community’s store. Brink’s favorite subjects to paint are landscapes, particularly bucolic and farm scenes that remind her of her childhood in Kansas.
One of Eakin’s most enthusiastic students is Rita Courtney, 90, who moved to Cypress Court from Ramona 15 years ago. She’s been painting with Eakin for the past four years. On Thursday, she was working on a wintry painting of a cardinal perched on a snow-covered branch studded with red berries. She said she appreciates how Eakin allows her the freedom to make her own choices but also provides a safety net of advice when she needs it.
“I love coming here every week,” Courtney said. “It’s my moment of serenity.”