For all of her 92 years, Fern Nickerson has looked to the sunny side of life. A mother, grandmother, great grandmother and volunteer, she derives happiness by taking care of others.
But it wasn’t long ago that clouds moved in on her usual optimism. Her husband of 70 years lives in the haze of Alzheimer’s disease, and when his care became too much for her to deal with on her own, the two of them moved from a retirement residence to a nursing home.
If not for picking up a paintbrush and learning watercolour painting, she confesses, she doesn’t know what state she’d be in now.
“This has been therapy for me,” says Fern with a beaming smile as she shows some of her recent paintings, spreading them out on the quilt of her twin bed. There’s a lighthouse, schooners in full sail, a bouquet of wildflowers. There are paintings on the walls too; one of her favorites is a still life of tomatoes, an onion, a garlic bulb and a basil plant—the ingredients for salsa.
“I think this is what’s kept me alive,” says Fern, a tiny lady with thin snow-white hair and watery blue eyes. Her 94-year-old husband Bruce sits close by in an easy chair, his hands folded in his lap.
“I think when you’re trying to make a rose look like a rose, you forget about everything else, even for a little while.”
Granddaughter Merav Jacobson, who works in a geriatric centre in Toronto, Ont., arranged for Fern’s private art lessons through NSCAD University’s School of Extended Studies when she noticed her grandmother wasn’t her usual cheery self. She also planned for someone to sit with her grandfather so Fern could paint worry-free and without being interrupted.
“She’s such an amazing woman—whatever comes her way, she thrives. She’s incredibly positive,” says Merav, in a phone conversation. “So that’s why I was so concerned after the move. There was definitely a dip in the positivity,”
Fern has since bounced back again, adds Merav, crediting the art lessons. “It’s like a second lease on life. She gets a lot of joy from learning, this great flowering of creativity and from her friendship with her art teacher. There’s definitely a special bond between them.”
NSCAD graduate Sydney Smith (BFA 2006) is Fern’s teacher. A children’s book illustrator whose titles include Mable Murple, The Dread Crew and the upcoming There Were Monkeys in My Kitchen, Sydney breaks from his routine every Wednesday morning to spend a few hours with Fern at Arborstone Advanced Care on Purcell’s Cove Road. He usually brings two coffees, along with pieces of food and other items that he can arrange in a still life for Fern to paint.
“I don’t think Sydney has breakfast, so he brings things to snack on,” confides Fern with a chuckle.
As for his part, Sydney says he’s learning as much from her and as she is from him. “She has a great sense of humor and so much wisdom. I’m always asking her a ton of questions.”
He adds they truly enjoy each other’s company. “She has it tough sometimes and I know this is kind of her escape. But it’s really relaxing for me too.”
The School of Extended Studies encourages seniors to explore their creativity. In the fall session, the school offers art classes in drawing and painting, letterpress and bookbinding, fashion and textiles, ceramics and sculpture. Seniors interested in an academic experience may want to peruse classes in art history taught by professors in Historical and Critical Studies. Tutors can also be arranged for one-on-one learning.
“Our students have a diverse range of experience when they join one of our classes,” says Sharon Blanchard, director of the School of Extended Studies. “We help them nurture their inner artist. Here, you don’t need to have a portfolio. We just ask you to bring your love, passion and enthusiasm.”
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Fern Nickerson shows some of the paintings she's made since starting art classes with instructor Sydney Smith. "It's nice to have a hobby," she says. "I'm not someone to just sit and rock all day."