An Artist Colony Where You Never Have To Go Home
I grew up near an artist colony in upstate New York called Yaddo in Saratoga Springs. It had a profound effect on me as a youngster and, it being in a small town, you always knew when the famous artists were there – Capote, Baldwin, Picasso, Highsmith, Puzo. Saratoga Springs is known for three things – a racetrack, mineral water and the arts – an interesting mix of neighbors in community that mingled semi-connected mobsters and lowlifes, water-loving hippies, and artists, my favorite, although it was a close call for sheer entertainment value.
Flash forward to the late 90’s, I was just starting to work in senior housing, about to form a nonprofit providing programs within that milieu, and attending a breakfast meeting of the Senior Housing Council in South Orange County, many miles from my home in L.A. The meeting started at 7:30 a.m., which meant I needed to leave, basically, the night before. The speaker was a gentleman named Bill Thomas – a medical doctor and someone who they espoused as inventing the Eden Alternative. Sounded good – and he’d better be, I thought, getting me up at dawn to hear him speak.
Dr. Thomas, as many of you who are reading this already know before I say it, blew my mind. He spoke about something he called intentional community, my first exposure to the concept at the hands of the master of it. He described an assisted living community that included raised gardening beds and a shop out back for people to tinker on projects. Nothing life-changing about this, except for the reason why they included these amenities – they planned it based on who they predicted might live there, based on the values of the surrounding community.
This concept got me thinking. I had driven miles to get to this breakfast. The plan for my new nonprofit was to serve communities that were similar drives – miles and miles on some of the most unforgiving byways in America. So Bill’s idea of intentional community presented an opportunity to utilize two of my best traits – borrowing, a.k.a. stealing, someone else’s terrific ideas, and unadulterated self-interest. I wanted to create a place where I could predict the type of people who would live there based on their shared values, and I wanted to create it close to my office in Burbank.
Burbank – beautiful downtown Burbank as Carson used to quip on The Tonight Show – was home to an overwhelming population of retired professionals of a certain variety – artists and entertainment professionals. I grew up near an artistic community where people from varying disciplines would come to feed their souls, work on a project for a few months, talk with other like-minded searchers, and then go home. So what, I asked myself, still in the room during Bill’s amazing talk, if they never went home? I wrote down “The Burbank Senior Artists Colony” in large letters on my pad after the copious notes I took on Dr. Thomas’ ideas, and drove the many frustrating miles home to pursue a dream.
After cold-calling the city of Burbank, many meetings, lots of collaboration and the partnership of a lifetime – with the visionary John Huskey of Meta Housing Corporation – the Burbank Senior Artists Colony (BSAC) opened in May of 2005, developed by Meta like no other developer could have developed it. It boasts 141 units, residents of all artistic skills, both professional and newly acquired, and all kinds of physical amenities to match EngAGE’s intellectual ones. The place has a theater, arts studios, computer media lab, outdoor performance spaces, classrooms and other buzzers and whistles to spark creativity. The spaces are matched by college-level classes provided onsite by professional artists and groups of residents who come together to create art shows, plays, films and other forms of expressive neighborly lunacy.
It’s the kind of place I’d move to grow up in, not grow old in – trust me.
Our COO, Dr. Maureen Kellen-Taylor, a lifelong artist and influential shaper of the creativity and aging movement, crafted our arts program, EngAGE in Creativity, bringing a personal and professional skill set to the task. Maureen was given the California Arts Council Directors Award a few years ago for a lifetime of achievement in the field.
To understand the power of BSAC, I’ll tell you a story I tell often because it shows the power of creativity and the beauty in the willingness to dust off your dreams and take them for a test ride.
Before moving to the Burbank Senior Artists Colony, Suzanne Knode was in her 60’s and had not had an easy time of it – she had raised kids on her own, worked hard, never done much for herself and had suffered a traumatic accident that created physical struggles for her as well. After moving in, Suzanne attended an EngAGE writing class – she had never written much before, did not think of herself as a writer, but felt a tickle in her that she might have a story or two to tell.
She wrote a short screenplay as a class assignment – it was called Bandida and the writing was amazing. It tells the story of an older woman who takes a senior bus and is lowered down by the handicap lift with her tennis-ball shoed walker in front of a liquor store, ambling inside. She dons a mask ala the film Scream, pulls a gun and starts to rob the place. During the course of the crime, she develops a relationship with the older Armenian shopkeeper behind the counter to the point that he lets her get away with it in the end. It’s funny and touching and real – not easy to pull off in a first attempt at writing a film.
It was such a good piece of writing, we decided to get into the filmmaking business, briefly. We raised a little money, we hired a director, cast it from our communities, even the hair and makeup folks were residents, “rented” the liquor store across the street in which to shoot it. EngAGE produces a radio show called Experience Talks, therefore we were kind of in the radio business, so one of our producers, Darby Maloney, pitched Ira Glass, thinking maybe the story would end up on This American Life, Ira’s world-renowned show. He liked the story, needless to say.
The making of Suzanne’s film, and her story of reinvention, was profiled not on the radio show, but the soon-to-be-syndicated national television show This American Life on Showtime. It’s a beautiful piece on taking risks and living life as we get older. Ira spent three weeks here and spent time getting to know Suzanne and star Helen Miller, feet up on her doily-covered footrest, shooting the breeze in her apartment. Suzanne is often stopped in grocery stores because people have one burning question from Ira’s piece: “So, did your movie make it into Sundance?”
Suzanne first saw her movie at the El Portal Theater in the NOHO Arts District of Los Angeles along with an audience of 350 film lovers because her film won into competition at the NOHO Film Festival. She got a standing ovation when she walked onstage for the audience talk back.
Suzanne is now working on several new film and stage projects and has also taken up painting in an EngAGE art class. She mentors at-risk teens at the school next door. Her life has changed. Here is what she said when profiled on the Experience Talks radio show: “I couldn’t believe that there would be a community for me at this time in my life. I didn’t think I’d be able to find something new inside of me. You know that same feeling when you got out of school and the whole world was open to you? Now, all over again, the whole world is open to me.”
The moral to the story – I want to be Suzanne Knode when I grow up. She’s a rock star. But I also want to be Teddi Shattuck, an amazingly talented painter (and my art teacher), who also discovered she’s a writer and actress – you can read her story, written in her own hand, in this issue. And I want to be Sally Connors, a BSAC resident who has achieved dream after dream as a writer, an actor and a singer at the community since she moved in. I want to be Walter Hurlburt who spends most waking moments painting and attending almost every class of every variety, because he can. I want to be Dolly Brittan, who moved to BSAC from South Africa after her husband died to discover she was an artist – a sculptor, painter, poet and actor, plus she started teaching again and mentoring children in desperate need of a guiding hand. Dolly fell in love again, marrying the man who taught her sculpting class, and no one was more surprised about all this happening than she was.
The model works, methinks, so therefore Meta Housing is opening more. The Long Beach Senior Arts Colony opens near the end of this year – 200 units of housing for artists and ones who want to discover the one inside – it will be the first 100% affordable senior arts living center. Bigger, improved, amazing.
The NOHO Senior Arts Colony opens this autumn in the North Hollywood Arts District not far from where Suzanne’s film premiered. And this one has a live, open to the public theater in the lobby, complete with box office and marquis, an 80-seat, state-of-the-art house operated by The Road Theatre Company, an award-winning troupe. Road Artistic Directors Taylor Gilbert and Sam Anderson will partner with EngAGE to provide high-end theatrical programs while running seasons in their new space.
John Huskey and his team at Meta Housing have constructed thousands of units of senior (and family) housing and John prides himself on breathing life into what could be just sticks and bricks. EngAGE now provides programming in 30 housing sites in Southern California serving nearly 6,000 seniors – and I owe it all to my mentor and partner, Mr. Huskey. Bill Thomas and I have since become friends and colleagues – Janice Blanchard, editor of this issue, introduced us – so my own creative aging in community has been blessed with a splash of good fortune which has allowed me to work with and develop relationships with the people I idolize and try to emulate. Not a bad way to create a community in which to grow older, with intention. Now I just need to develop a senior colony based on rock and roll, and all will be right with the world.
Tim Carpenter is the founder of EngAGE and host/producer of the EXPERIENCE TALKS radio show. EngAGE is a nonprofit that changes aging and the way people think about aging by transforming senior apartment communities into vibrant centers of learning, wellness and creativity. Experience Talks is a radio magazine that shines a light on the value of experience in society, airing for 250,000 listeners on Saturdays at 8 a.m. Pacific on KPFK 90.7 FM in Los Angeles and streaming live worldwide on the web at www.kpfk.org. The show is syndicated by the Pacifica Network to up to 100 cities nationwide. Tim serves on the board of the National Center for Creative Aging. In 2008, Tim was elected an Ashoka Fellow for being one of the top social entrepreneurs in the world, and in 2011 he received the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award.