Art at any age: Seniors put works on display at Rhoda Goldman Plaza

Ethel Salwen has been sculpting since she was 13. Now 95 years old, she still will spend months crafting a single bronze piece.

A resident of Rhoda Goldman Plaza in San Francisco since the retirement community opened its doors in 2000, Salwen has displayed several of her sculptures in the center’s annual art shows.

Her latest piece — a man seated on the ground, eyes tightly shut and hands clasped over his legs — can be viewed in “People, Places and Panache.” The fifth annual resident art exhibit opened last week in the center’s gallery and runs through November.

Hedy Krasnobrod with her framed paper design (behind) and origami (on table).

Rhoda Goldman Plaza art instructors hold classes two to three times a week; individuals work on paintings, ceramics and other media, while memory-repair residents often collaborate on group projects. The yearly exhibit is the culmination of all their work.

“People, Places and Panache” features watercolor paintings, origami, bronze sculptures and colorful tapestries created by nearly 50 residents.

An opening reception Sept. 15 was packed with residents and family, Rhoda Goldman Plaza board members and staff. As a harpist played, attendees noshed on finger sandwiches and perused the intimate gallery space.

“The residents work on these pieces all year,” said Susan Koster, executive director of Rhoda Goldman Plaza. “At this time in their lives, I’m so proud they are able to create something new and exciting in art form.”

Hedy Krasnobrod, originally from Vienna, Austria, has been creating origami pieces for the past 15 years, but recently discovered a new passion. During art classes in the last few months, Krasnobrod took up paper layering, gluing lightweight overlapping papers to create new designs. She has both origami and layered-paper pieces in the new exhibit.

Watercolor artist Ben Altman has been painting landscapes since his days living in San Francisco’s Sunset District. Along with multiple pieces in the exhibit, he has even more artwork in his room and in family members’ homes.

Executive Director Susan Koster with board president Harvey Schloss by the group chuppah. photos/emily savage

For this exhibit, his warm-colored, cliff-lined beach scene and dark blue-toned cityscape are a study in contrast.

While exhibitors such as Salwen, Altman and Krasnobrod have been interested in art for decades, others are just getting into the realm — thanks to watercolor classes and art therapy provided at the facility.

“Some residents have never done art before; they were businessmen or schoolteachers, physicians or housewives,” Koster said. The classes provide “an opportunity to explore an artistic side that they never had the time or inclination [for].”

Bert Sugarman was excited to have his first piece in a show, a deeply saturated black and red painting. He chose the bold colors because “I was thinking of my high school back in the Bronx, these were our colors.”

Sugarman only recently discovered an interest in creative expression. Early in life, he was more drawn to planes than paintbrushes — he flew 29 combat missions over Europe during World War II. 

His change of heart is not uncommon: People often enjoy new creative outlets later in life, explained Rhoda Goldman Plaza art therapist Ruth Strock. She worked with memory-repair residents to create large, collaborative pieces such as draped silk banners and the exhibit’s piece de resistance, a large purple chuppah.

Strock’s students worked on the project over the course of three years, using metallic paints and dyes to handcraft each square. Initially, everyone worked independently. But the residents eventually agreed they should combine their squares to create the chuppah. Strock sewed the pieces together in checkerboard fashion, with lime green borders.

The artists are on the lookout for a couple interested in using the chuppah for their upcoming nuptials. All they ask is that pictures be taken during the ceremony, so residents can see the result of their hard work being put to good use.

“The idea was to bring people together, to work on a community project,” Strock said. “There are so many benefits to doing art activities and using textiles at any age.”

Rhoda Goldman Plaza is at 2180 Post St., S.F. Couples interested in using the handcrafted chuppah can contact Susan Koster at (415) 345-5080.