Benefits of taking an art class go well beyond pretty pictures

ALICE HERDEN   |   Special to the Times A model poses for student artists at a recent portrait class at the CARES Elfers Center.
ALICE HERDEN | Special to the Times A model poses for student artists at a recent portrait class at the CARES Elfers Center.
Published Aug. 18, 2018

It doesn't matter how old you are.

It doesn't matter if you have talent.

It doesn't even matter if you have to hold your shaky painting hand steady with your other hand.

As long as you don't drink the cup of water that is to be used to clean your brushes, you can paint.

And enjoy the relaxation and sense of accomplishment that go along with it.

For 18 years, John Comer, a St. Petersburg artist-muralist-teacher, has packed up paints, paper, painting trays, brushes, easels, cups, music and his painting apron and taken them to senior living facilities to hold painting classes for residents.

He started with one student at one facility and now has hundreds of students in 68 classes in 39 facilities every month.

And, over those years, he has seen for himself what studies have shown: Creating works of art helps stave off the negative cognitive effects of aging — while socializing and having fun.

On a recent Tuesday, John, 54, looking more like a surfer dude than a painting teacher in his flip-flops, Under Armour baseball cap, blue Maori Hook T-shirt and white cargo shorts, had three classes scheduled at three different senior living facilities.

He wheeled large plastic containers that were stacked on a folding hand cart up the elevator to the top — 21st — floor of the Fountains at Boca Ciega Bay in St. Petersburg. There, in front of large windows with million-dollar views of the bay and surrounding area, more than a dozen students sat at round tables waiting for him to offer help, advice and compliments.

One woman stood out, mostly because her classmates nodded toward her or pointed in her direction. She was the star student in the class, a gray-haired woman in a black and white cheetah print sweater sitting with her back to the window.

"I started painting at 90," Anita Choate, said. "I mean, I am 90. I just started painting five months ago," she said. She wasn't painting now. She was waiting for John to help her trace the outline of a violinist on a canvas. It was to be a gift for her 21-year-old granddaughter who plays the violin.

The students aren't expected to draw or sketch what they want to paint. John has a pile of drawings, not unlike those found in adult coloring books, from which the students can choose. Depicting everything from flamingos dressed in bathing suits to a single rose on a thank-you card, the line drawings provide a starting point for the students.

As she waited, Anita opened up her iPad and showed pictures of the paintings she had done in her brief artistic career. A giraffe, a hedgehog, landscapes. All beautiful and all gifts for others.

"You shouldn't just not use your brain," she said. "It's interesting to find out you can do something you didn't think you could do."

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Seated across the table from Anita was Liz Rylan. As she blended the reds and pinks on the rose she was painting, she explained she has macular degeneration, an eye disease that results in irreversible vision loss. She has some sight left in one eye.

"I painted before, when I could see. Artistry is a wonderful way of expressing yourself," she said.

"I still enjoy it. I stick to primary colors but I enjoy blending the colors and pulling in the shadows," Liz said.

Friendly and energetic, she later walked around the tables, complimenting others on their work. It was yet another example of the positive effects of older adults getting together to make art.

Across the room, 87-year-old Edwin Renkowicz was taking time out from his other favorite pastime, golf, to join the painting class. He likes to do abstracts and colorful, fanciful works.

This day, he was working on an abstract from a photo of a painting a friend had given him. He was going to try to re-create it.

"I spend about an hour a week taking pictures of things I'd like to paint," Edwin, who is living proof age is only a number, said. He did a whimsical balloon painting for his 2-year-old great-granddaughter and a desert scene for his grandson at Arizona State.

"Painting is a great way to relax. And, with art, you can always cover up your mistakes."

At yet another table, a woman was arranging and rearranging sticks on a canvas she had covered with blended beige and brown paints.

"When I saw these twigs down on the ground, I thought I could do something with them," Jane Lenher, 79, said.

She said she didn't really like to paint but these twigs would add a 3-D effect she liked.

"John told me to paint what I wanted behind the twigs first then we could add them later. I think I'd like to put an angry sky behind them. Then grass and rain and the sun."

John Comer's next class was in the secure ward for dementia patients at Bon Secours Maria Manor in St. Petersburg.

Unlike the articulate students in the last class, many here were nonverbal. Some had to be told repeatedly not to drink their paintbrush water. (They still did.) One moved her easel so she could fold and unfold the plastic tablecloth. Wheelchair alarms beeped and buzzed in the busy adjoining TV room.

John was calm in the chaos. He turned off the loud TV, replacing it with some calming jazz music.

"It's kind of like spinning plates on sticks," John whispered with a wink as he circled the room, setting them all up with paint and brushes.

"I'm going to get a brush. Don't get excited and start painting with your fingers," he told them.

It didn't matter what they said or did, he remained kind and joked around with them. He has been going there for so long, he said, that he knows a lot of the residents, their abilities and their personalities.

In the chaos, some residents buckled down and got to work, intently concentrating on coloring things such as butterflies or birds or roses.

He passed around a marker and had them sign their works and then hung them on the wall in the room.

While it's still not known exactly how much arts and crafts classes help us maintain healthy brains as we age, there is little evidence that it doesn't. In fact, the results of a four-year study of 256 people with an average age of 87 who were free of memory and thinking problems at the start of the study were published in 2015 in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

It found that people who engaged in arts in both middle and old age were 73 percent less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment than those who didn't.

The study was supported by the National Institute on Aging, the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research and the Rochester Epidemiology 53 Project.

John Comer's last class of the day was at the Bon Secours Assisted Living Facility on the same campus in St. Petersburg.

Here, Kathryn Worischeck, 88, worked on her months-long project of painting a scene on the grounds that included a small pond. John had helped her transfer a photo of the scene onto her canvas using carbon paper. She brought the painting to the monthly class to continue working on it with his help.

Across the table sat Margaret Mohar, a striking woman in a red jacket and dark black hair who didn't want to give her age. She was painting a thank-you card. The words and picture of a rose were to the right of the paper so it could be folded into a card.

"I have several of them," she said. "I love to look at them. Saying thank-you to other people makes the day."

John Comer knows about thank-you's.

A few years ago when he was playing softball, he got hit in the mouth, losing most of his front teeth.

He went to the dentist. $23,000. That's what it would cost to fix them.

Extracting them and getting dentures would be much cheaper. It wasn't what he wanted to do, but it was what he had to do — until he got a message from his dental office.

An anonymous donor, the receptionist told him, had paid the entire $23,000. He could get his teeth fixed.

He later found out that it had been one of his students. She was 92. He was choked up with gratitude.

It seems that regardless of whether or not his painting classes helped her cognitive ability, she was very grateful for a chance to be part of them.

Contact Patti Ewald at

To learn more

You can reach John Comer, teaching artist at "Sunsets With a Twist," at