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Julia Purcell teaches art classes for senior citizens

Meet the Mentor
by Nina Linton

Julia Purcell (photo: Nina Linton)

In Julia Purcell’s hands is a small scanned copy of a dewy self-portrait painted by one of her art students. The primitively painted subject is centered on the background, a rough wash of baby pink with bare spots of exposed paper peaking through. Framed by a mop of black hair are the two captivating eyes that catch you in a direct gaze and seem to peer back. The rosy cheeks are flush with colour, balancing the button nose and fine lips and around the neck of her shirt a red bow finishes off the personal portrayal.

At first glance one might assume that this simple and puerile painting was done by a small child but in reality many would be surprised to discover that it is a self-portrait completed by an 88 year old woman.

It is paintings like this one that got the seniors Purcell was teaching to believe they could produce art and it got the professional artist to view her craft in a new light.

“I could no more do that than she could paint like I could. I mean I couldn’t learn that. So that is why it is really fascinating,” says Purcell of the wee pink portrait.

Purcell, a well-established watercolour and oil painter, has taught three classes for senior citizens. Most recently she was the instructor for two groups as part of the free LEAP program (Learning Elders Arts Program.) With 20 hours of instruction over six Saturdays throughout the long Prince Edward Island winter, Purcell laid the foundation for beginning artists who are over 65.

“It was almost as if some of them had been waiting all their lives to do something like this. That is what I kept hearing ‘Oh, I always wanted to do this.’ They almost needed it to be a gift as they probably could have afforded it,” say Purcell.

Tackling the challenging medium of wet watercolour Purcell guided the seniors from basic washes to shapes and beyond, with the culmination of all their lessons being an art show with their works on display.

“Seeing them develop and seeing them come from being fearful of the paint, and the paper and the brush to saying ‘Hey I can do this!’ I really, really enjoyed that.”

Purcell watched as some of her students became so passionate about painting that they bought their own supplies, “and painted all week long, and didn’t do their house work.”

Inspiring seniors to pick up a brush and view the world around them in terms of art, and shades of paint was a goal achieved by Purcell. While her mature students taught the veteran artist to question ideas she held like who is an artist and who is not.

“It is amazing that just a little bit of direction and a little bit of encouragement can take them such a long way. I had to guard my critical artist self that I would apply to the work of professional artists and look for a new standard and it was good for me to see that just creative expression is valuable. I probably wouldn’t have been able to appreciate or understand how something is an interesting little work and just written it off as childish, so I think it changed me working with them. To see their enthusiasm and enjoyment, so that is something I hadn’t expected.”

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