While Amy Henderson doesn’t know what it’s like to be an older adult, she does know what it’s like for someone to tell her she is irrelevant. Realizing many senior citizens feel insignificant is what inspired Amy to start The Geezer Gallery, an art space with a mission of seniors helping seniors. At the edge of the Pearl’s necklace of art galleries, it is the only gallery in town championing senior citizens in the arts. The Geezer Gallery aims to break down ageism stereotypes and supports a variety of art therapy curriculums in senior living facilities in Portland. The artists who display their work at The Geezer Gallery are acclaimed at what they do, and not ashamed of their age. In a recent interview, Amy shared why a gallery for senior citizens makes a difference for them and the community.
What’s the grand vision of the Geezer Gallery?
The goal is to have a community center that not only has the art gallery but working studios for our artists. We want a place where we can have our art therapy and our professional classes for people to take. Currently, we take our programming out into the community.
How do you balance your time between the business and the nonprofit, both showcasing art and developing your programing?
There is no balance (laughs). The goal of this project is to change perceptions of aging, and to shed light on the fact that elder people are creative and productive human beings, which is not the current perception. We thought art could be a vehicle for that.
How is art uniquely situated to create the healthier society you’re describing?
Art is a universal language; it gives voice to things that we can’t articulate. We know through science and research that art increases brain health and decreases depression; it increases self-mastery and creates social connections, so it’s a natural way to keep our elders and our society healthier.
Where does your passion come from for this project?
I moved back to Portland 10 years ago, after recovering from a domestic violence situation. I spent a lot of time in the retirement community where a 96-year-old friend of mine lived, and because I know her history and the experiences she’s lived through, it was hard for me to witness what it was like for her not to be recognized for any of those past accomplishments. There was no malicious intent – it was happening to everyone – but I watched her dignity and her sense-of-self decline rapidly. It hit me particularly hard.
It’s amazing that you transformed all of that into this project. How did you do it?
It’s weird how all of these experiences come together. I went back to school to get my master’s in business, not exactly knowing what I would do. During that time, I was a Knight scholar, and read a story about a Nike project that gave five kids who were dying of cancer the opportunity to design a shoe which they then produced and sold, donating the proceeds to charity. What struck me, however, was the follow up interview with an oncologist: all of the children had improvements in their T-Cells, despite nothing changing in their regimen. It shows the power of having something to live for, even though you know you’re going to die. I ended up turning my graduate work into the preparation for the Geezer Gallery.
It’s a great idea. How does one get art into the gallery?
It’s a juried process to see if it fits in the gallery. And we’ve got partnerships around town. We’ve got a partnership with the Actors Repertory Theatre. The artists create the work to fit the play, so it’s a thematic tie. We also partner with a lot of retirement homes. We bring artists and their art into the homes. So really, our gallery is here as well as in the community.
So, how does your community programming work?
Our arts program is focused primarily on low income seniors. We get a lot of grants for that. We’ve just partnered with OHSU on a major grant for Alzheimer’s. We’re taking an art therapy curriculum that incorporates creative writing and illustrative techniques for life stories and bound books, and measuring the impact on populations with early stages of Alzheimer’s. Our hypothesis is that participating in this program will lower apathy, lower depression, and can help people maintain cognitive ability. The exciting part is we’re getting the science behind it to test whether we’re right or not.
It seems like you’ve hit on a real need, connecting age and art. Has Portland’s art community been receptive?
We were in Multnomah Village before, and it was challenging in that we weren’t in the center of the arts community. People didn’t understand the name of the gallery. It’s starting to change because they see the quality of the work.
Is ageism a problem in the art world?
It’s so pervasive. But the reality is you don’t get to this level without experience and time. That’s what our artists have going for them – they’re mature artists. And it shows.