, ,

This article was originally published on The Iris

When Brittney Giammaria, activities coordinator at the Veranda of Pensacola retirement community, first tacked printouts of paintings to the community bulletin board and began encouraging residents to come to her “art re-creation” photo shoot, she thought she’d get maybe four or five takers. She had spent weeks explaining the challenge, created by Getty at the end of March. She mentioned it to residents in her water aerobics classes and during happy hours—trying to sell them on the idea of choosing a painting and re-creating it themselves using props and clothing they already had. Giammaria had been searching for safe, socially distanced activities to help occupy the residents’ time, and this one would be fun, she told them.

On the day of the photo shoot, Giammaria put down a box of props and costumes, and spread around 25 printouts of paintings on a table in an event room, including Grant Wood’s American Gothic, Frida Kahlo’s Self Portrait With Bonito, and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine. At first, only a few of the more extroverted residents let her take their photo. One gentleman selected Rene Magritte’s The Son of Man, so Giammaria gave him a face mask to wear that she had adorned with a picture of a green apple. Another chose Saturday Evening Post artist George Hughes’s illustration of a swimwear-clad boy playing the piano; he took a seat at the community piano wearing red swim trunks.

The half-naked man at the piano got the residents’ attention. Others began peering at the paintings and brainstorming how they could re-create them. In all, more than 20 residents and staff chose a painting and had their picture taken. And dozens more stayed to watch, all maintaining social-distance protocols as they delighted in their friends and neighbors’ transformations.

For Veranda of Pensacola and other senior living facilities around the world, the Getty Museum Challenge arrived at a time when distraction and levity may have seemed impossible, but were exactly what those most vulnerable to COVID-19 needed to keep their spirits up. As it turned out, one unique way to boost morale was to slip out of reality and into the world of a painting, if only for a few minutes.

“There is a lot of pressure on the entire staff to keep these people safe, and for these people to keep themselves safe, and we just kind of forgot about all of it for the day and that was the most special part,” said Giammaria.

The Getty Museum Challenge found its way to many senior communities by way of staff, often the activities directors who work to provide residents with entertainment like classes, day trips, and game nights. With early outbreaks of COVID-19 clustered in senior communities, these facilities were among the first to institute safety precautions such as prohibiting visitors and trips outside the grounds, limiting class sizes or canceling them altogether, and instructing residents to avoid gathering in groups—leaving staff scrambling to find ways to keep residents both busy and socially-distant.

“I thought, how many more word search puzzles and adult coloring sheets can I subject everyone to?” said Karen Schaefer, recreation manager at Amenida Seniors’ Community in Surrey, British Columbia.

Then, the Getty Museum Challenge began popping up on social media and, eventually, national news. Staff realized that the challenge would allow residents to not only exercise their creativity and enjoy a bit of escapism, but also practice social distancing.  Photos were taken in small groups and everyone wore face masks (up to the moment the picture was taken, of course).

Encouraging residents, most of whom do not use social media regularly and had not heard of the challenge before, to take part in the photo shoot often required a personalized approach. While Giammaria used the community bulletin board and word of mouth to get the word out, Jennifer Gustafson, active living director at The Park at Copper Creek, an independent senior living community in Chandler, Arizona, said she held a casting call. She created a flyer with examples of art re-creations she found online, personally invited people to participate, and searched for a painting she thought best fit each one.

Amenida resident Brenda Hawkes agreed to do a re-creation after Schaefer showed her John Russell’s Portrait of a Girl With a White Dog, because it would give her dog, Ellie, a chance to shine. The painting features a young girl with blonde hair, who rests her arm on a table next to a  fluffy white dog. Along with Ellie, a curly blonde wig, white shirt, and pink ribbon completed Hawkes’ re-creation.

“It was fun because Ellie is [usually] not allowed to be on a table. Trying to get her to stay there was next to impossible,” said Hawkes. “The creativity and the laughs that we’ve had from this are truly amazing.”

Ursula Fraatz, a fellow Amenida resident, agreed. “Oh, we laughed, I tell you. It was fun. My grandchildren, everybody has seen my picture. They couldn’t believe it.” Fraatz re-created Philip de Laszlo’s Queen Marie of Romania.

After the first few re-creations were completed, curiosity and enthusiasm for the project grew past anything staff and those first participants expected, mirroring how the Getty challenge exploded online after it first began.

At Amenida, Schaefer showed some of the community’s Korean residents paintings that featured the traditional Korean hanbok dress; ladies were soon bringing their own carefully wrapped hanbok dresses out of storage to show off in a photo. Gustafson printed out the re-creations and displayed them alongside the original paintings, creating their very own “museum” that residents returned to again and again. Giammaria posted all the photos on the community board and said even now, weeks later, people are still stopping to admire them, and they want to plan another photo shoot.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit senior facilities especially hard, and life for residents and staff has been a frustrating mix of fear for their own health, distress for the devastating news coming out of other retirement communities, and the boredom and isolation that comes with being unable to visit friends and family. But while they were searching their closets for the perfect accessory to match their painting, poring over the subject’s body position to figure out how to emulate it, and laughing over the final photos, those worries faded away.

Carmel Dimond was one of the Veranda of Pensacola residents drawn to the photo shoot. She took several art history classes after retiring from her career as a school principal, and wanted to re-create Girl With a Pearl Earring, one of her favorite paintings. But another resident had already chosen it, so she selected a sultry painting of a woman wearing a black hat and sparkling earrings. A hat from the prop box, along with Dimond’s own red scarf and costume jewelry from the 1950s, brought her re-creation to life.

“I love make-believe, and as a little girl, I used to do make-believe all the time,” said Dimond. “[The Getty challenge] was a way to escape. We’ve been in quarantine for so long. And it was just a wonderful experience. Everybody was so upbeat afterwards.”