Phyllis McGuire: At Harper Center, painting is both an art form and a memorial

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WILLIAMSTOWN — A collage hanging on a wall of the Harper Senior Center is captioned "In memory of Jacqueline J. Toomey from her art students."

Toomey died Jun 12, 2017, at age 89.

The art students who created the collage were tutored by Toomey, a skilled artist and instructor, as participants in the Harper Center's painting program.

The loss of Toomey could have been a catalyst for the group disbanding, but they still share a passion for painting and gather at the Harper Center to express their creativity in paintings.

"The women (art students) have been coming here for years. Now, they come as an independent group," said Brian O'Grady, director of the Harper Center. And on the Harper Center's monthly activities calendar, Tuesdays from 9 to 11:30 a.m. are still designated for "Oil Painting."

"We miss Jackie so much. ... Jackie was an excellent teacher," Toomey's former art students said when I visited them at the Harper Center recently.

Tackle boxes, leather cases and large tote bags filled with painting supplies at their side, the women worked on their latest paintings.

Sue Stratton of Williamstown was painting a landscape, inspired by a postcard.

Painting is a sort of lifeline for Stratton, who has used a wheelchair for about 20 years.

Stratton had been a musician by trade, singer and guitarist, until an accident and strokes stole her ability to sing or play an instrument.

"I love art, and painting was something to do and to learn," she said.

The events that changed her life, however, haunt her.

"The only time I don't think about what happened is when I'm painting," Stratton said. Though she is unable to use her left hand, she is right-handed and paints with her right hand.

''I'm always messing around with pencils and pens (sketching) when I'm in the car," said Stratton, who has a driver transport her to where she needs to be, including doctor appointments twice a week.

Dorothy Kirby, a member of the group for 15 years, was working on a new painting she had set on a tabletop easel.

"Tuesday is my favorite day, because I come here to paint. It lifts up my spirits," said Kirby, who is 86. "I dreamed of being an artist when I was younger, but at that time, people would have thought I was crazy if I had said that."

Verne Bosworth does portraits — everything from puppies to famous people.

"When I was doing a painting of Picasso's self-portrait, Jackie would tell me 'dark' and 'darker,'" she said. "At first, I thought, 'how much darker can I make it,' but when it was finished, I could see that Jackie had been so right."

Now working on a portrait of her 14-year-old grandson, Bosworth struggles to capture his essence from a photo.

"It's been a long time since I was last with him, and they change so much as teenagers," the North Adams resident said.

Diane Maero, who lives in the state of Florida and spends summers in Williamstown, said she was interested in art and coloring as a child growing up in North Adams but did not develop it.

She started painting about 30 years ago in Florida when she and her late husband, an opera singer, studied watercolors.

Maero now works with several mediums, including charcoal. And although she usually works from images, she said that her painting "A Night at the Opera" was born of her imagination.

"The reward of painting is the joy in doing it," she said. "Each painting is a part of your soul you don't want to part with."

Of going to the Harper Center to paint, Maero said, "It's a very enjoyable group of all levels of skill. We do different types of art and learn from each other."

Phyllis McGuire writes from her home in Williamstown. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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