Artists in Residence Find Renewed Avenues of Expression at United Church of Christ’s Phoebe Ministries
Henrietta Edelschein hated her sculpture teacher.
“He wanted all the detail — the collar bones, all of it — I didn’t see it that way!” she says. “I wanted to simplify, to feel the flow, the forms.”
So she stopped going. When she finished her degree in fine arts at the Stella Elkins Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, Edelschein practiced pottery. At first she created symmetrical forms on the potter’s wheel—bowls, vases, and the like — but quickly grew bored. Her later work exemplifies her interest in more natural forms, asymmetrical shapes that suggest ideas, gestures, and parts of plants and trees.
Edelschein discovered sculpture for herself when she visited the Guggenheim Museum and saw pieces there representing every culture and era of human history. She went to the Museum of Natural History and saw the works of prehistoric people. Everything simplified — the “essence” that defines her work as a mature artist. Line, form, and movement presiding over everything. Edelschein says she was “elated” by the discovery. But she wouldn’t begin sculpting until the birth of her first son, Rich, in 1958. The shape, the heft of his head in her hand, turned into a self-renewing source of inspiration throughout her artistic life. Since then, Edelschein has created hundreds of sculptures, most of them from clay or natural objects like pine cones, branches, and sprigs of dried leaves. She works in the abstract, creating forms that suggest rather than mimic or recreate.
One of Edelschein’s sculptures is on display in the chapel at Phoebe Wyncote, Phoebe Ministries’ continuing care retirement community a few miles outside Philadelphia, where she has lived since 2014. Her husband Reinhold, a gifted artist and musician in his own right, came to Phoebe following a stroke and Henrietta moved with him, taking up residence in an independent living studio facing east. She moved in the autumn, and took the room because of the maple tree outside her windows, which was filled with brilliant orange leaves. “I’m very inspired by trees,” she says. They appear in her work again and again, often merging with the shapes of men and women.
Longtime residents of the West Mount Airy district in Philadelphia, the Edelscheins chose Phoebe for its faith-based ministry. “They take care of you here,” says Edelschein. “It’s a very good place.” Her husband lost his ability to speak after a second stroke three years ago. She visits him in his own studio each day, playing music of the composers, violinists, and conductors he loves. And there is some comfort in knowing that her husband is looked after by a dedicated team of experts who care about him as an individual, and that she is just around the corner.
Edelschein is one of many gifted artists who have chosen Phoebe as a retirement destination. Her residence at Phoebe Wyncote is filled with the treasures of her own creation, as well as her husband’s. Where the sculptures have left space are the books she brought with her from Mount Airy. Edelschein, a published poet — most recently in a Philadelphia literary journal — has an addiction to books, she says.
A Place for Many Arts
The Rev. Walter Krieger has space of a similar kind in his apartment at Phoebe Berks Village. The walls are filled with his paintings and those of his wife, Judith. Unlike Edelschein, who explored her artistic identity before she could read, Krieger came to art late in life. His wife was a painter and an instructor. She took painting holidays in Europe and Krieger accompanied her, choosing where they would go next. A retired pastor with 23 years of ministry under his belt, Krieger took up painting after one of his wife’s students suggested he give it a try. He was 65. “I’ve put this off too long,” Krieger said to himself at the time. The student sent him art supplies to get started. “I made every mistake in the book!” he recalls. With time and patience, and a certain playfulness and whimsy evident throughout his paintings, Krieger produced a body of work so extensive that much of it is kept in storage for part of the year.
In the years that followed, Krieger and his wife exhibited their work both jointly and individually, demonstrating and selling pieces occasionally. Judith taught until a heart attack 10 years ago forced her to cut back. Since moving to Phoebe Berks in 2013, Walter has painted little; he’s heavily involved with other pursuits at Phoebe, as an active musician, and chief editor of the Writers, a magazine of essays, poems, and fiction by people who live at Phoebe Berks Village.
“They often say the busiest people are the happiest and most productive,” says Krieger, now 78. “I have no need to be productive. I have a need to have time to pursue who I am and what I want to be.” For Krieger, as for so many others at Phoebe Berks and elsewhere, there simply isn’t enough time in the day. He wants to study writing and poetry more deeply, and do other things he’s never had time to do.
Discovering the Inner Artist Later in Life
Just one floor down from Krieger is another painter, Sandy Leidich. She didn’t start painting until she was 45. One day when she was looking for a fine arts instructor to teach her 10-year-old son ceramics, she discovered a woman who taught oil painting in the basement of her home in Myerstown. Leidich began studying technique with her. “I never had the opportunity to do anything until then,” she says. “I never had time or a place to set up.” Since then she has produced about one painting a year, give or take. They are exquisitely detailed, finely crafted works, ranging from still lifes to landscapes.
At Phoebe Berks, Leidich is more of a musician than a painter. Among other things, she plays in a piano quartet with some of her neighbors, performing classical works for piano four-hands. “Living here is ideal for any personality,” says Leidich. Her late husband was a very private person and preferred time alone, while Leidich herself chose to engage in more activity in her community. The arrangement at Phoebe Berks suited them perfectly. “When you work, you’re always rushing to the next thing but when you come here, it’s off your shoulders. If I want to do this, I do it. I have peace of mind here.”
Self-Expression Key to Art Therapy
That peace of mind is important to people who choose Phoebe for retirement. For Gertrude McDonald, choosing Phoebe Richland meant she could rely on someone to look after her, and her husband could, too. McDonald became a quadriplegic in 2003, and her husband took care of her for years. She came to Phoebe in 2014, and since then her husband Doug has been a constant and regular visitor. Doug’s visits are especially meaningful because when he comes, Gertrude can paint. Using a special brush that fits into her mouth, McDonald creates vibrant watercolors, both landscapes and abstracts, making small movements of her head to complete the brush strokes. Doug sets up her palette and easel, and adjusts the canvas for her as she works.
McDonald was a painter for years, and did a portrait of Doug 60 years ago when they met. “It took me a while to understand you really can be yourself, whatever that is,” she says. “Painting was important to me and it releases memories. Every time I paint I think of a person or it reminds me of a person.” Their choice to come to Phoebe means Doug can come and go as he pleases, which was not the situation at a community where McDonald lived previously. “We have freedom here and there’s comfort in that freedom.”
At Phoebe, the McDonalds can also take advantage of a therapy team committed to creating new resources for wellness. McDonald is working with a physical therapist on using an iPad that will allow her to use the internet as a research tool so she can learn more about painting, art, and the world outside.
Renewal Through The Art
Though it is home to many artists of longstanding practice, Phoebe’s independent living communities also offer the opportunity for new and budding artists to flourish in different ways. Jacqueline Lare has taken advantage of classes at the Terrace at Phoebe Allentown to revisit her fondness for painting. She took lessons in oil, watercolor, acrylic, and other forms throughout her life and painted quite a bit. “I like to do what I can to enhance things around here,” she says now. At Phoebe Berks, painting classes and other artistic adventures are frequent engagements for the community. In September, Patti Sciali of Reading was an artist in residence there, and led a group of women in creating cyanotype pictures to be sewn together into a quilt. Funded by a Pennsylvania grant, Sciali taught the delicate and exacting technique of cyanotype to eight women at Phoebe Berks, and worked with them on the project for several weeks. “We’re having the time of our lives,” said one during the process.
These are the kind of opportunities that Phoebe creates — not only to continue in the pursuit of lifelong passions and hobbies, but to explore new ones. Nothing is stopping these artists from doing exactly what they want to do. Henrietta Edelschein, at age 88, is still writing poems and making plans for new works. Gertrude McDonald is exploring new avenues blending physical therapy with art. Walter Krieger keeps up with painter friends and new trends in the art world. “I have this balance of music, writing, and painting in my life,” says Krieger. “It’s a great life.”
As individuals and members of a community, these artists are striving constantly toward new things, not in spite of their time in life, but simply as a natural impulse. Their age is an indicator only of their lifelong dedication to self-exploration.
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