A Call for Diversity in Senior Living: Celebrating Black History Month at the Black Arts Festival

By Elizabeth Roan

It was Bette Davis who said “old age ain’t no place for sissies.” As I stood in a room filled with the residents of Cathedral Village during their closing reception for the third annual Black Arts Festival, it was clear I may have been the only sissy in the room. Easily, I could count on one hand the top five experiences of my life. In this roomful of seniors, African American Artists, and the accomplished thinkers who spoke that day, the number of hands in the room wouldn’t be close to the amount experiences they’ve lived.

In honor of Black History Month, Cathedral Village, a continuing care retirement community, has been hosting Black Arts Festival for the past three years. Organized by one of Cathedral Village’s residents, Robert Polk, this year’s event hosted seven artists who exhibited their stories told through painting, photography, dramatic storytelling in the Black tradition, and poetry. Entering Cathedral Hall for the festival felt like a little getaway, as it is part of Philadelphia’s Roxborough neighborhood. Surrounded by trees and the spacious landscape, one was able to mediate with the art. The featured guests that weekend were some of Philadelphia’s most prominent voices. The painter Moe Brooker came to speak and discussed what inspires him in his work, and how he continues to work today. Original poetry was read by Pheralyn Dove, an African American performance poet whose work expresses her passion for liberation. Opening night had a live jazz performance, soul food was served throughout, and even an evening matinee screening of Fences kept the festivities going.

Moe Brooker
The Inside Story
Oil and mixed media on panel
36″ x 36″
Courtesy of Sande Webster Gallery, Philadelphia and June Kelly Gallery, New York

The visual artists exhibited their artwork on easels spread throughout the room in Cathedral Hall. One artist whose work particularly stood out was Gilbert Fletcher. Showing two of his collections: New Orleans Paintings and Painted Voices. Honest in its softness in both color and focus, his New Orleans work speak about his time living in NOLA and the houses that grace and define the city, pre-and-post Hurricane Katrina. He says that the houses of NOLA had a matte-finish that “proudly glowed a thousand tones of yellow within a given day,” metaphoric of the ever-changing narrative of The Big Easy. Painted Voices shows Fletcher’s exploration in portraiture with 28 paintings of African American writers (James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, just to name a few). He states “For several years I explored the possibility of creating a series of paintings of my favorite writers. Developing this visual reference of literary figures would also serve as a great starting point for educating people wanting an introduction to African-American literature. I also wanted the works to be, not mere portraits, but images incorporating symbols that would identify the writer.” Through bold marks of color, he captures the writers’ personalities and experiences, and their stories.

An ongoing theme celebrated through the weekend was the importance of diversity–in every stage of life. As the quixotic goal of making things in this country “great again” persists, the exhibition showed how things are great—but not at an easy cost. One thing seniors have in common with African American artists, it’s their unique sense of storytelling and their inner-Ishmael living to tell the tale of what they’ve seen and how they’ve persevered. According to Mr. Polk, “the vitality, passion, and resourcefulness of artists with ancestral roots in Africa spans the ages, to communicate and inspire. Their undeniable influence on literature, sculpture, music, painting, design, theater and dance not only elicit human emotion but also generate intellectual reflection about the triumphs and trials of the Black race.” The festival ended with an evocative speech given by Reverend Mark Tyler, making a call to action for “intergenerational collaboration,” as he used the allusion of the canary in the coal mine as a cautionary metaphor for our generation. He gave the residents a nod to their wisdom, advising that it is an advantage when in a room full of quarreling: everyone becomes quiet when Grandma rises to the occasion! The Black Arts Festival makes it evident that diversity is easy to achieve when combining knowledge of a strong race, a young and fiery generation, and with the wisdom, stories, and imprinted memories of seniors.

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