Seniors draw on old passions at Oak Park Arms art classes

Howard McClainHaving worked with senior citizens for the past 15 years, art instructor Nancy Fong knows they tend to have plenty of material for self-expression.

“When you live a long life, you have lots of past,” she said.

As a group, seniors — who frequently attend her classes at the Senior Citizens’ Center of Oak Park and River Forest after a spouse has died — are often passionate about art but haven’t had the time to explore their interest in it, Fong said.

Howard R. McClain and Frank Schaben are both residents of the Oak Park Arms, a senior and assisted living facility, and have taken up art as a hobby since their wives died. Both take part in Fong’s classes.

“They’re both pretty darn talented,” said Desi Vasquez, social director at the Arms.

McClain, whose background is in music, had a latent talent for sketching that developed through classes with Fong, Vasquez said.

As a choir director for 50 years, he taught singing and traveled to Italy, Jamaica and Canada with choir groups. McClain moved to the Oak Park Arms with his wife, who died in 2010. A few months later, he attended his first art class at the Arms to occupy his time.

He enjoyed sketching and doing profiles of women in a primitive style. When Fong suggested he try using acrylics, “I started out, I liked it and I’m fair,” McClain said.

Fong quickly added that he’s very modest. His work — mostly of his experiences growing up in Chicago and in the church — has been featured in Gallery PINK in the Oak Park Arts District.

Fong smiled as she said the paintings “were selling like hotcakes.”

“What I enjoy most is I can always paint over errors that I make,” McClain said, adding that the process is relaxing for him.

“Howard is just very open to all sorts of ideas,” Fong said. “And he has a great color palette, too.”

Schaben got started experimenting with abstract expressionism in 1964. After a bad car accident required him to recover at home for a period of time, his wife brought him some books on modern art.

“Anyone can do that. You’ve just got to have a lot of guts and call it art when it’s finished,” Schaben said matter-of-factly.

At the time, his first foray into painting was “kind of psychedelic” since he had gotten a concussion.

In a style similar to artist Jackson Pollack, he would put a canvas, glass or posterboard on the floor or table and use different colors, brushstrokes and textures until he decided he liked a piece. He created in that way for about 20 years.

He took up his old hobby again earlier this year. Vasquez saw his past pieces and mentioned it should be featured at the Arms’ Narrow Gallery. Now, some of his work is being shown at Northdown Taproom in Chicago.

Schaben said he doesn’t refer to his work as “art,” but considers it more a study of color combinations. One piece featuring a basic color palette represents he and his wife dancing.

“It’s kind of a carefree thing, but it’s really kind of stress relief,” Schaben said. “I can’t emphasize enough that I don’t consider it a talent of any kind.”

“He’s modest, too,” Fong added.

By: Caitlin Mullen
Oak Leaves – Sun-Times Media – Dec. 28, 2013