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Memories & images.

Our lives are made up of interesting moments, stories, and imagery that shape our perceptions and personalities through the years. Imagine having lived for eighty or ninety years, how many stories you would have to tell! This is the idea that intrigued me after working with seniors at a live-in facility over the past ten years with my high school art students.

We perform community outreach with the seniors at a local retirement center, bringing art and enjoyment to the residents. During our visits, we might, for example, bring magazines, paper, and water-color paint to work on landscapes or collages. We talk about the process being more important than the product. As we work with the seniors, bonds form between students and specific residents. Students and I discuss with the seniors, day-to-day things that are going on in our lives as we paint or create. Oftentimes, the seniors reminisce about when they were young. They enjoy sharing their lives with my students.

Students and I discussed how much we learn by listening to their stories about historical events, distant places, and other cultures. Their reminiscences allow us to put a face on events that we had previously only read about in textbooks. We also knew, from looking at their faces as they talked with us, how much it meant for them to be able to tell their stories to us. With this, an idea was born.

We decided to interview the residents about their lives. We photographed them to create a work of art. This included a portrait and imagery that was meaningful to them from their past. Seven residents participated in the project, varying in age from their mid-fifties to ninety years old. We spent about an hour interviewing and listening to stories. I brought my 35mm camera with a close-up lens and photographed each of the residents two or three times, to make sure that we had varying expressions.

Students were able to use whatever medium they liked. Some chose to do the piece in charcoal. Some used mixed media with colored pencil and collage. One did a photo-transfer process and then did hand-drawn work for the background. The completed images were as varied as the seniors. The works had one thing in common; they showed care for and interest in the subjects. Students took time to reflect on the backgrounds, places, and things that were most significant to the seniors.

One student interviewed a woman of Native American ancestry. The student included images that were important to her from her heritage in the portrait: a wolf, a dream catcher, a starry sky, and a campfire.

The subject I interviewed for this project was named Joe. When I interviewed Joe, I found out that he had come to the United States from Ireland on a ship with his aunt and mother when he was eleven years old, in 1921! He seemed to remember the sights, sounds, and smells as though it were yesterday. He said that his big wish was, to be able to see Ireland again.

I chose to do Joe's portrait in gouache. I placed him in a chair, in his brown jacket with a landscape of his native Ireland as the background. I researched Irish landscapes at the library and came up with a composite that included some of the imagery he talked about during the interview.

We matted each of the works and returned to the center to present the portraits. Some of the residents were speechless. Some were teary eyed. This art problem did so many things for everyone involved. It brought history to life for my students and myself. It gave seniors a young audience who showed interest in what they had to say. The experience showed us how art transcends time and place and is a perfect vehicle for connecting people, no matter what their differences might be. I recommend community outreach as a way to use art to touch the lives of your students an&the elderly in a deep and positive way. It is sure to be an experience you will treasure as well.


* Engage in community outreach with mature high school students.

* If you do this with younger students, have an adult act as a mentor during the interview process.

* Prepare students for possible sights, sounds, and behaviors they might witness in the residents (for example, memory lapses).

* Be sure to obtain proper permission from the center in advance.

* Allow the students to choose the medium so they will be as successful as possible with the final result.

* Incorporate on-site sketching from life for the portrait piece.

* Prepare students for possible rejection; reassure the student in the event that this occurs.


Students initiate, define, and solve challenging visual arts problems independently, using intellectual skills such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

Memories & Images Interview Form

Instead of reading these off one-by-one, ask the questions in a conversational manner. Use them as a jumping-off point. Remember to write down answers as you get them. Be sure to capture any answers that could translate to images for the artwork.
Name of Interviewer --

Date of Interview -- Place of Interview --

Name of Interviewee -- Nickname --

Date of Birth -- Place of Birth --

Family Info (parents, siblings) --

What is your earliest memory of a place (a house or apartment) where you lived?

What did it look like?

Was there indoor plumbing?

What city and state was it in? Can you describe it?

What did you do for fun?

What do you remember about school?

Who were your friends?

What other places have you lived?

Once you were out of school, what jobs did you have?

Were you ever in the service? What branch? Where did you serve?

What were and are your hobbies?

What is your favorite place to be in the world? (If you could be anywhere, where would it be?)

Do you have any children?

Have you had any favorite pets or animals?

What are you most proud of about your life so far?

If you could give me "words to live by," what would they be?

Lynn DiCamillo Pass is an art instructor at West Linn High School in West Linn, Oregon.
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Title Annotation:community outreach project for high school art students
Author:Pass, Lynn DiCamillo
Publication:School Arts
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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