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From ordinary to extraordinary: Artists transform senior center

Alicia Colombo

By Mary Anna Rodabaugh

Connie (“Cubby”) D’Amato, 80, meticulously dabbed a small paintbrush against a cinderblock wall, as she said, “This is something I never expected to be doing at my age.” D’Amato is among three artists who have been working on a colorful floor-to-ceiling mural inside South Philadelphia Older Adult Center at 1430 E. Passyunk Ave.

The project began in March 2020 with the intent to brighten up a drab hallway and give center members something vibrant to enjoy, as they congregate in the space between scheduled programs and activities.

Following several discussions about possible scenes, Center Director Deborah Hoffer selected a picturesque red bridge in a Japanese garden surrounded by cherry blossoms. “We wanted something tranquil,” Hoffer said.

After applying six coats of primer to the yellow cinderblock walls, D’Amato and her cousin Sally Guariglia, 80, got to work. Their progress was abruptly cut short when COVID-19 pandemic safety restrictions ceased group activities and eventually closed the center to participants. By the summer of 2020, D’Amato and Guariglia were permitted back into the building to work on the mural, as long as they observed safety protocols and no programs were running. But their progress was again halted once more around the holidays, due to heightened pandemic safety restrictions.

“Long before COVID, I wanted to do something extravagant,” Guariglia said. “In my mind, I can do anything if I try hard enough, but it takes special knowledge to do murals.”

Guariglia has been painting her whole life and even taught art classes at the center before the pandemic. “I passionately love art,” Guariglia said with a smile. She thinks about the mural frequently, often waking up in the morning with a fresh idea on the use of color or perspective.

D’Amato says the mural project has been a lifesaver for the artists involved. She is grateful for the opportunity to deliver something from the heart that others can enjoy.

Beatrice (“Bea”) Regalbuto, 88, joined the mural effort after taking several art classes at the center. “I sat down to paint in the art room and realized that I had not sat down to paint anything since I was in the 6th grade,” Regalbuto said. “It gives me a change of scenery and fills my mind with other things.”

An artful mind gets one’s creative juices flowing. “I wanted to paint Bigfoot in the bushes, but Sally (who is the serious member of the group) wouldn’t let me,” D’Amato said, with a laugh. However, Guariglia will allow her cousin to paint her signature animal, somewhere on the mural. “I leave a ladybug on every single thing I paint,” D’Amato says. “Maybe, I’ll make it a family
of ladybugs this time!”

More than a year after the painting began, a beautiful and highly detailed Japanese garden landscape brightens up the once ordinary hallway. But the artists say their work is not yet complete. The cherry blossom trees that reach the ceiling have been a difficult area to paint, due to the artists’ height.

“I taped a paint brush on the end of a broomstick to at least get the shape of the treetops up there,” D’Amato said. But Guariglia shook her head and said, “We need to fix those trees.”

Hoffer plans to assist the ladies with adding detail to the towering cherry blossom trees. When it is safe to do so, the artists hope to have an official “unveiling” of their finished masterpiece, before beginning a new project elsewhere in the building. Hoffer supports the artists’ enthusiasm, noting there are plenty more blank walls that can become brilliant canvases.

D’Amato is excited to keep going: “The whole project just blossomed. I loved being part of it.”

Shannon Reyes is the public relations specialist at Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.

Categories: Milestones eNews


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