Seniors renew creative juices with arts programs
By Brad D. Bates
C & G Staff Writer
Sterling Heights resident Pete Snodgrass is a walking, talking, painting testament that it’s never too late to indulge a creative desire or hone a new craft.
When he was 62-years-old, Snodgrass, who is now 74, retired as a sales and marketing executive with Cargill.
To fill his schedule after retirement, he decided to take a class in Birmingham about painting watercolors, which would change his life.
“My first painting, the instructor came over and told me to stop because it was perfect,” Snodgrass quipped about his first watercolor, which was a sunflower. “She told me to stop painting because it was just perfect. I had no idea why, but she said it was good.”
Fast-forward 12 years and Snodgrass, who has since been named artist of the month in Sterling Heights and Shelby Township, and has since had his works featured in numerous galleries across the state, is the one encouraging seniors and retirees to indulge their artistic flairs and let the creative juices flow as he teaches watercolor classes at the Shelby Township Senior Center.
“Many of them have had some art in the past, and it’s been years since they’ve done anything, so they want to get back into it,” Snodgrass said of his students, who meet every Monday. “Others have no art experience at all, but they wanted to do it. They were interested in art.
“I have some also that have taken a number of art classes other than mine over the years, but they like Monday mornings — it gets the week going for them.”
And Snodgrass, who spent time in the military and enjoys woodworking and carving, said he sees awakenings in his students similar to the one he experienced 12 years ago in Birmingham.
“There are many times they are surprised at the ability they have and how they can evolve,” Snodgrass said. “People say they have no art ability, but we all have art ability. It just takes someone to help develop it and expose it.”
Snodgrass said the experiences provided in arts programs draw seniors since the programs provide an opportunity to reconnect with a sense of discovery and achievement that comes with learning.
“I think they’re more or less surprised, at their age, that they have a talent that can be developed, and they enjoy doing it,” Snodgrass said.
“They’re fascinated when they see what water and paper can do by themselves,” Snodgrass added of when he sees the creative light turn on in his classes.
Troy Recreation Coordinator Elaine Torvinen said she believes senior art classes are popular in her community because they offer a combination of a relaxed social setting and a place where seniors can explore past interests and passions.
“As people get to that age, looking toward retiring, they are looking for activities that they can do to take up that free time, and (art) is something they’ve always wanted to do or explore,” Torvinen said. “And now they have the time to do it.
“For some people (art is) something they liked as a child, and it’s something they can get back to at a retirement age,” Torvinen added.
And Torvinen said finding that opportunity can be as easy as calling a local senior center or community center.
“It never ceases to amaze me that people come in and they say, ‘I never knew this was here,’” Torvinen said. “It’s amazing that they don’t know what resources they have available here. The biggest challenge is making sure people know what’s available.”
Along with rekindling former interests or learning new painting techniques, Snodgrass said he sees a lot of life lessons in his classes that his students pick up, whether they know it or not.
“You have to accept that you don’t have a lot of control,” Snodgrass said of painting with watercolor. “The water is going to do things you don’t have control over.
“I like that adventure and still play with it and adventure with it. (Watercolors are) not for the person that is a real control person, and that’s one of the hardest things for seniors because, the older we get, the more we want to control.”
But once someone gives in to the “adventure,” Snodgrass said it can lead to different ways of looking at the world.
“When God created nature, he was very nervous because, if you look at it, nothing in nature is straight,” Snodgrass said of one of the observations he noted as he started to look at the world through an artist’s eye.
“I want them to start observing, and I find they do become more observant,” Snodgrass added of one message to his students. “I find them saying, when they drive down a country road, it takes forever because they’re looking at barns and everything else.”
But the biggest and most impactful change in viewpoint for a student may be the way seniors see themselves as individuals.
“Paint your way,” Snodgrass said of the most important advice he can give a student.
“Each of us has our own techniques,” Snodgrass added. “I want them to use their technique. And the worst thing you can do as an artist is try to paint like someone else, because it doesn’t work.
“One of the techniques I teach is, when we’re pouring colors … you get a beautiful array of colors,” Snodgrass added. “We do that, and they are all very happy with the results — 12 students, 12 results, and it depends on the person.
“And you can line them all up, and nothing is bad.”