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Channeling Matisse… art at the Bethesda Senior Center

Channeling Matisse... art at the Bethesda Senior Center
By Beth Volpert Johansen

During the weekly art class at Bethesda Senior Center local artist Shirley Shepherd is surrounded by a group of enthusiastic women eager to start the newest project.

On the first day of the new fall session, Shirley and her group busy themselves with placing supplies on the floor instead of tables or easels. Shirley explains to her class that the day’s lesson is inspired by the coping strategies of an ailing Henri Matisse.

One class member, Katherine Meyer, just having returned from Paris, reported several facts about Matisse from the tablet in front of her. She noted that he had been a part of the Paris scene in Gertrude Stein’s social circle. “I thought it was neat that he had originally gone to Paris to study law, but became an art student when he was sick with appendicitis.” 

Artclass 190Right: Art students using the “long stick” method by Henri Matisse.

Suffering with failing eyesight and significant challenges for a painter, Matisse attached brushes to the ends of long sticks and painted from a distance to achieve his later works. Shirley and the class took on the challenge of creating works using the same technique. The resulting pieces were a combination of viewpoints and brushstrokes made by two teams of artists that varied as much as their personalities. “When I first tried this myself, I had inks on it, plus some little dribbles,” says Shirley. “Something will come out of it eventually.” 

Each of the women tried their hand at the technique learning something from the person who went before them. They added and changed, tweaked and blended all of the unique elements each artist had added as the final painting took shape. The accompanying chatter was encouraging and full of delighted surprise. “Sylvia’s going crazy! She is really getting into it!” “This one kind of looks like a sunflower…” “I think I see a sea creature…wait, no? Maybe an alien octopus?” 

On and on went the conversation as the paintings were created with the long-handled brushes. Anne Jackson of the Bethesda Senior Center was attracted to the room by all the joyful sounds and thought the students must be having a great time. “Honestly, that looks like so much fun!” Sue Miller laughed and replied, “Maybe next week we should fingerpaint.” 

All fun aside, the student artists enjoyed the lesson and perspective it brought to how to cope with the loss of functionality. The lesson showed that anyone can work through adversity to produce beautiful art. Working together to achieve that goal made it all the more fun. 

“Everyone sees something different,” says Shirley. “Painting doesn’t have to be complicated, we learn something new each time.” Bringing a special approach to art class is important to Shirley. There are basics that can be learned, but finding a way to express personality and have the confidence to explore different techniques is just as important. “How we learn as artists takes big steps sometimes, and sometimes, we take little steps, but we are learning every time we work.” 

One of the four paintings Shirley’s class did is being donated to the Lawrenceville Woman’s Club for their annual luncheon/fashion show fundraiser. 

To view Shirley Shepherd’s work check out her website at: 

For class information at Bethesda Senior Center: or call 678.277.0179