Reconnecting with self and others through art
The C wing of Westminster Place, an assisted living community in Evanston, used to be a sleepy corridor with dull, mass-produced artwork. Framed prints of stale subjects broke up the walls’ neutral tones — but barely.
The scene changed eight years ago, when Gordon Guth, 88, a retired industrial designer and watercolor enthusiast, moved into Westminster Place. Around the same time, Jacqueline Willrich, 86, a retired French teacher at Northwestern University and social worker, also arrived at Westminster.
Today, the hallway looks very different. It features a vibrant cornucopia of rotating, resident-created art that acts as both conversation starter and community hub.
An art hobbyist her entire life, Willrich was an avid watercolor and pastel painter, creating portraits and nature scenes and regularly taking painting classes at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe.
After four years of looking at the bland walls, she and Guth realized there were a number of artists living at Westminster whose talents could improve the hallway and energize residents.
“We wanted to transform that space in the C wing of our community to showcase some really fine art that our resident artists were doing,” says Guth, co-chair, along with Willrich, of the art committee at Westminster.
Since 2018, Willrich and Guth have spearheaded a quarterly resident art show that features a wide range of mediums, including paintings, photographs, needlework, and 3D art. The exhibit space, previously an unnamed corridor of the C wing, now goes by Gallery C.
Comfort in self-expression
Whether they’re creating in their own apartments or in the community craft room, the artists enjoy the freedom of self-expression and joy of discovery. Guth keenly observes the natural environment; he loves reproducing what he sees while exploring different color combinations on paper.
The first art show in 2018 began with six artist residents, including Willrich and Guth, exhibiting their talents — framed and titled — on the Gallery C walls. An accompanying brochure included a statement from each artist explaining their work’s motivation and inspiration. In four short years, the show has expanded to about 25 participants.
“More and more residents came out of the woodwork and began submitting their art,” Willrich says. “It’s a great mental stimulus for our residents, and for those who don’t talk as much, it’s an avenue to communicate.”
Cheri Hunt, an art instructor at LivingWell Cancer Resource Center (not affiliated with Westminster), has taught art to people from ages 3 to 104. While her younger students are enthusiastic and uninhibited, she notices that older adults tend to be more apprehensive about starting.
“Everyone has a creative self, but sometimes early on in people’s lives, they can be negatively judged. They were told that their art was not good or not suitable to be displayed,” she says. “But when they do sit down, it’s amazing to see that apprehension and years of judgment melt away. You can see and feel the joy of them just creating.”
Pamela Martinez, clinical therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, agrees with Hunt. In addition to overcoming judgement of their work, older adults may have stifled their inner voice and are unsure how to authentically express themselves, Martinez adds.
“Older adults have often spent years focusing on the feelings and concerns of other people — children, partner, friends, and co-workers,” Martinez says. “Having the opportunity put that aside, reconnect with their own experience of life and the world, and express that creatively through art can provide a new sense of satisfaction and fulfillment.”
Art boosts mental cognition, too. With so many distractions in day-to-day lives — the steady stream of news, for example — working with the brush or camera keeps the artist focused solely in the present moment of creation. Guth says he experiences this phenomenon when he paints storm clouds or a forest floor, focusing intently on all of the unique details of his subject.
In addition to each artist’s individual gains, residents at Westminster have formed a lively, supportive community centered around art — whether they themselves create or simply enjoy other residents’ work.
“All of the residents look forward to the shows, and it draws many of them here,” says Willrich, who was preparing for her 12th show in September 2022.
Guth laughs when he thinks about Gallery C’s humble beginnings — and the foam core board sign that originally designated the space — to its transformation into a permanent gallery to honor the artists.
“Management originally didn’t want to give us a wall,” Guth says. “But now the shows are so popular, they wouldn’t dare think of touching it.”