An Artist Colony Where You
Never Have To Go Home

by Tim Carpenter

I grew up near Yaddo, an artist colony in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. Saratoga Springs is known for three things — its racetrack, its mineral springs, and the arts. What a heady gumbo of neighbors — semi-connected mobsters and lowlifes, water-loving hippies, and — my favorite — artists. Small town that Saratoga Springs was, you always knew when the famous artists were there — Capote, Baldwin, Picasso, Highsmith, Puzo. It had a profound effect on me as a youngster.

Flash forward to the late ‘90s when I was just starting to work in senior housing and on the verge of forming a nonprofit that did outreach to that population. My epiphany came at a breakfast meeting of the Senior Housing Council in South Orange County. The guest speaker was a gentleman named Bill Thomas — a medical doctor who had invented something he called the Eden Alternative. It sounded promising — and sitting there — after having gotten up at dawn and driven miles and miles across the Los Angeles sprawl — I thought, he’d better deliver.

Dr. Thomas blew my mind. He spoke about something he called intentional community. It was my first exposure to the concept, and my instructor was a real master. He described an assisted living community for seniors that included raised gardening beds and a shop out back for people to tinker on projects. Nothing extraordinarily radical in these suggestions. What was radical was how he arrived at what amenities to include. Predict who was likely to live in the facility, he urged us. Ask what are the values of the surrounding community. Create an environment that reflects them.

So I started thinking… I had logged miles to get to this breakfast. The plan for my new nonprofit was to serve communities that required similar punishing treks — miles and miles on some of the most unforgiving byways in America. Bill’s idea of intentional community presented an opportunity for me to indulge two of my baser, but treasured, instincts: my inclination to “borrow” shamelessly someone else’s terrific ideas and my unadulterated self-interest. I wanted to create a residential community where — based on their shared values — I could predict the type of people who would populate it. 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 enormous population of retired professionals of a certain stripe — artists and entertainers. I’d grown up, as I said, near an artistic community that attracted artists from varying disciplines; they’d come to feed their souls, work on a project for a few months, talk with other like-minded searchers, and then go home. What, I asked myself, still sitting in the room and Bill still talking — what if they never went home? I wrote down “The Burbank Senior Artists Colony” in large letters on my pad below the copious notes of Dr. Thomas’s ideas that I’d scribbled down. Then I drove the many frustrating miles home to pursue a dream.

The poster for Bandida: "A pistol,
A Plan and Sensible Shoes."

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 a rich variety of physical amenities that include a theater, arts studios, computer media lab, outdoor performance spaces, classrooms, and other bells and whistles intended to spark creativity. The physical amenities are more than matched by what we at EngAGE call the intellectual amenities: 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, designed our arts program, EngAGE in Creativity, bringing her own rich 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.

I tell the following story often to help listeners understand the power of BSAC — the creativity it nurtures and the beauty that emerges when a late-blooming risk taker dusts off her dreams and takes them for a test ride.

Suzanne Knode holding one of her paintings.

Before moving to the Burbank Senior Artists Colony, sixty-something Suzanne Knode had not had an easy time of it — a single parent who had worked hard, neglected her own needs, and had recently 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 it tells the story of an older woman who takes a senior bus. When the bus stops in front of a liquor store, the woman and her tennis-ball-shoed walker are lowered down on the handicap lift. She ambles inside the store, dons a mask (ŕ la 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, and he lets her get away with the crime in the end. The screenplay is funny and touching and real — not easy to pull off for a fledgling playwright.

It was such a good piece of writing, we decided we’d try dipping our toes in the filmmaking business. We raised a little money, hired a director, recruited the cast from the residents of our communities (even the hair and makeup folks were residents), and “rented” the liquor store across the street in which to shoot it. Since EngAGE also produces a radio show called Experience Talks, we were already in the radio business. Darby Maloney, one of our producers, pitched the idea to Ira Glass, hoping the story would end up on This American Life, Ira’s world-renowned show.

Well, he liked it. A lot. And the making of Suzanne’s film along with her own personal story of reinvention was profiled, not on the radio show that Ira produces, but on 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.

Suzanne’s own debut viewing of her movie was at the El Portal Theater in the NOHO Arts District of Los Angeles, and she shared it with an audience of 350 film lovers. The film had been juried into the competition at the NOHO Film Festival, and Suzanne got a standing ovation when she walked onstage for the audience talk back.

Sally Connor singing with a band for the first time,
one of her dreams, at BSAC.

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. Here is what she said about her changed life 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 — at least for me — 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 at BSAC has also discovered she’s a writer and actress. (You can read her own telling of her story in this issue.) And I want to be Sally Connors, a resident who has achieved dream after dream as a writer, an actor, and a singer since she moved into the community.

Walter Hurlburt painting from his
grain elevator series, created at BSAC.

I want to be Walter Hurlburt who — simply because he can — spends most waking moments painting and attending almost every class of every variety. I want to be Dolly Brittan, who moved to BSAC from South Africa, after her husband died, and discovered she was an artist — a sculptor, painter, poet, and actor. She also started teaching again and mentoring children in desperate need of a guiding hand. Then she 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.

What do you do when you find a model that works so well? You share it, of course. Meta Housing has scads of new initiatives at various stages: The Long Beach Senior Arts Colony will open near the end of this year — 200 units of housing for artists and artists-to-be open to discovering their till-now hidden talents. Long Beach 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 award-winning troupe, The Road Theatre Company. Road Artistic Directors Taylor Gilbert and Sam Anderson will partner with EngAGE to provide high-end theatrical programs for their residents, while they stage their own annual season 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 admire 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 — then 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.

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Notes

1 See “The Roseto effect: a 50-year comparison of mortality rates” at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1695733/.