Local gallery puts a kibosh on the idea of 'old people art'

Local gallery puts a kibosh on the idea of 'old people art'
A piece of art on display at Geezer Gallery. Notice the bullets that were used in the hair.

PORTLAND, Ore. - An art gallery with a kitschy name is challenging stereotypes about the elderly in our community.

Geezer Gallery, located at 7710 S.W. 31st Avenue (in the heart of Multnomah Village), features local artists who are 60 and older.

Now before you dismiss the gallery as a place that's likely full of 'ducks and doilies' as the curator jokes, you might want to take a closer look. We're talking about artists who have honed their craft over a lifetime and it definitely shows.

There are chic sculptures, brilliant glass pieces and striking paintings, just to name a few of the works of art on display. From the moment you walk into Geezer Gallery, you are taken aback by the sheer artistic talent.

The non-profit gallery is the brainchild of Amy Henderson, a survivor of domestic violence who broke away from the abusive situation she was in and went to college to forge a new path in her life.

Henderson's aim is to break down the walls of ageism and create strong bonds in the community that will benefit seniors. Her idea began taking shape several years ago when she returned to Oregon, where her roots were, to rebuild her life.

A 96-year-old woman who Henderson had known all her life (who she considered a grandmother figure) moved nearby into an assisted living facility. Henderson visited her several times a week and what she saw saddened her.

"There were all these people sitting around with no creative stimulation and nothing to do," she said. "(They were) lying there watching TV or playing bingo. And I thought about the wealth of experience and knowledge and information that could be garnered and nobody was asking them."

Henderson said it reminded her of how she felt when she was with her abusive husband.

"All those horrible things - you're worthless, you don't matter, you're irrelevant - are the same messages that we send to our older population. And when somebody tells you that over and over and over again, you believe it. There's no hope. There's a shutdown."



Geezer Gallery's Amy Henderson talks with a prospective artist on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011.

Rather than let that sadness take over, Henderson took what she learned from the experience, and from a few other moments in her life that hit close to home, and began working towards a dream. And she worked hard - taking business classes and studying gerontology for several years. She developed her business plan for Geezer Gallery while in college.

Fast forward to today and Henderson is now working with elder artists to showcase their work and is developing strong relationships in the community to give seniors a quality of life they might have been missing out on.

Now of course like any new venture, especially in these tough times, it can be easy to doubt yourself. Henderson candidly admits that she was scared when she started down this path and still is to this day.

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Geezer Gallery holds an artist's reception every month. The next one will be this week, on Friday, Nov. 4 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

The featured artist is 74-year-old Farooq Hassan, an internationally acclaimed artist who immigrated to the United States from Iraq just last year.

Geezer Gallery is proud to display his body of work that includes contemporary mixed media, collage and acrylic on canvas.

A Farooq Hassan painting on display at Geezer Gallery.

"It's a daily struggle sometimes - you know you always want to put on that face," she said. "Because it is great and I can see the big picture. It's just frustrating sometimes because you're not there."

Despite the challenges, Henderson is clear about her goals.

"(I want) to use the arts as a powerful tool for healing, for wellness and to challenge against stereotypes at the same time," she said.

One example of Henderson's work in the community is her partnership with Leadership and Entrepreneurship Public High School (LEP), a local charter school that focuses on providing students with real world experience.

In an upcoming six-week program that will culminate with an art show, seven LEP students will be paired up with elder artists. The goal will be for the students to learn a craft from an expert and then create a collaborative piece with the artist they are working with.

"It requires the students to create a relationship, for one, with the older artist - level that playing field so they are learning from one another" said Henderson.

Ashlea Starns, an 18-year-old senior at LEP, is heading up the project. She has signed on as an intern at Geezer Gallery and is coordinating the entire program between the gallery, the students and the artists. And while the project is just getting off the ground, she is already forming lasting friendships.

"I'm working with a lady right now and I'm already thinking about buying her Christmas presents," she said with a smile. "I love her so much."

Artist Profile

The oldest artist who will be working with students from LEP is 99-year-old Frank Springer, who retired from the Portland Police Bureau in 1973 after nearly four decades on the force.

Frank Springer shows Ashlea Starns the technique to cut a piece of glass on Friday, Oct. 28, 2011.

Springer was the Assistant Police Chief in Portland when he hung up his badge and we asked him to share a few stories from his cop days. For one, he said it's strange to see how times have changed since he was an officer.

"We were after gamblers, we were after bootleggers and we were after prostitution," he said. "Now think - this is 55 years later and we're sitting here today and what's happened to gambling? It's every place - every kind of gambling you can think of. What's happened to bootlegging? There's no bootlegging - even grocery stores are selling hard liquor. What's happened to sex? Every kind and every shape there is, is free."

During his assistant police chief days, Springer was the man in charge when dignitaries like presidents and vice presidents came to town. He said he met Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy, just to name a few, during those details.

His rookie days weren't so glamorous, however. Springer had a funny tale to tell about the time he and another officer nicknamed 'Screwball Carlton' were sent out in the middle of the night to see about a cow that was standing in the middle of an intersection. Springer was just a few months into his new job at the time.

"And so this Carlton - and I was a rookie so you do what the other guy says - he said 'well get out there and grab a hold of it and I'll go see where it belongs,' " Springer said. 

Photo courtesy Flickr user kevenlaw (Creative Commons).

"So I'm out there in the middle of the intersection," he continued. "And I'm a city boy and I don't know that with a milk cow you're supposed to stand on one certain side where they milk them. So I'm on the wrong side and the cow don't like that. So he starts stepping on my feet. He steps and then I take two steps and then he steps and I take two more and we're waltzing around in this intersection for two hours while Carlton's off on some crazy event."

And if that wasn't enough, Springer also had an audience who was getting a kick out of seeing a cop try to keep a cow under control.

"Jantzen Beach Ballroom," he said. "It was a Saturday night and there were a lot of high school kids there at the dance. So the dance is over and they're driving by and here's this policeman out there waltzing around with this cow. And the kids start slowing down and tooting their horns and the cow starts jumping. 'Ride 'em cowboy' they're yelling. Oh man, the things they put new cops through."


One of Frank Springer's plates on display at Geezer Gallery.

Today - with his rookie, vice cop and assistant police chief days well behind him - Springer now spends his time making glass art.

Henderson said her oldest artist is really looking forward to working with the students from LEP.

"This is exactly the age where a young person can go one way or the other," she said. "And these are already at-risk youth. So he can make a difference and that's what made him excited."

We visited Springer at his Southeast Portland home and got a first-hand look at his basement workshop, complete with kiln, and the garage he recently converted into a gallery.

Although Springer is modest about his creations (perhaps in his mind it's just something that keeps him busy) you can tell he is very proud when someone tells him he is talented.

Frank Springer with his kiln on Friday, Oct. 28, 2011.

Springer is quite at home in his workshop and he loves to show people how he makes his pieces - how to cut glass, how to use the kiln (pictured at right) and how to create a colorful design.

Glass making takes a lot of patience and skill and Springer freely admits he makes mistakes here and there. But he's got a simple theory.

"There's a nice excuse for mistakes," he explained. "What did the Persian women do? They built in a mistake in all their work because only God can make things perfect. So if you make a mistake on the glass you say 'yeah, that's supposed to be there.' And if you don't like that, well go to a factory. This is homemade."

All photos by Shannon L. Cheesman, KATU.com Producer/Reporter, unless otherwise noted.