Amherst Magazine

The Art in Listening

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Bessie Young '11

By Caroline Jenkins Hanna

Bessie Young ’11, a double major in psych­ology and art and the history of art, has a longstanding interest in how art affects communities. So when she heard about an Amherst course that asks students to create artwork not in the studio but in local neighborhoods, she quickly signed up.

“Collaborative Art” was conceived of and taught last semester by Wendy Ewald, visiting artist-in-residence, and Rick Lowe, founder of Project Row Houses, a nonprofit arts organization in Houston. The course asked students to identify and join forces with a local community group on a project that “facilitates listening.” It was an intentionally broad assignment. “We encouraged students to find art in the collaborations, whatever the form,” Ewald says.

Eight students enrolled in the course. One of them, Hampshire College senior Ben Barry, spent time at The Care Center in Holyoke, Mass., teaching photography to pregnant teens and young mothers. The final product was a set of pictures, shot by the young women, of children and mothers.

Sara Softness ’09 joined the North Quabbin Time Bank, a program that uses services—instead of money—as currency. She gave Spanish lessons to one member and, from another, learned how to change a tire. For her final project, she recorded interviews she conducted with her Time Bank colleagues.

Young conducted, compiled and edited a series of interviews with members of the Amherst Senior Center’s New Options discussion group. The result was a half-hour video titled Ageless: A Collaborative Listening Project. Through her work, she met 80-year-old Peg, who makes jewelry and pottery; 83-year-old Dick, who helped found the polymer science program at UMass; and 84-year-old Daphne, who’s been married several times and only sees her husband on weekends, when he’s not working two hours away at a railroad office. (The video uses only their first names.)

 “The Amherst Senior Center is only a five-minute walk from campus,” Young says at the beginning of Ageless. “I decided to use my camera to take the time to listen to local senior citizens and discover what this distance meant to the relationship between age groups.”

She encouraged participants to “just talk about anything,” she says. Her first interview was with 69-year-old Mae, who attended six different colleges but never completed the coursework for her bachelor’s degree. “I always wanted an education,” Mae wistfully tells Young in Ageless. “But I realize that an education is something that you get out of school as well as in school.” Mae says in the video that she explored the possibility of going back to school later in life, but that she couldn’t afford it.

The Ewald-Lowe collaboration will continue next fall, when the pair returns to campus to again teach “Collaborative Art.” Young, meanwhile, has received $1,000 from Amherst’s Center for Community Engagement to launch an intergenerational activities group. She plans to use the money to hold poetry readings and craft workshops for Amherst students and the elderly. “Even though I started out investigating the distance between Amherst College and the Amherst Senior Center—both figuratively and literally,” she says at the end of her video, “I realized that this difference was less due to age or mileage and more due to the ability of individuals to listen. I have new hope for listening and bridging the gaps between age groups.”

She’s come away with something else as well: “I have this interesting group of senior citizen friends now—a whole other social circle apart from my college friends.”

 

Listen to Softness' final project.

Watch the video of Ageless: A Collaborative Listening Project on Young's YouTube channel.

 

Photo by Samuel Masinter '04.