The Helpers: Older Adults Develop Artistic Skills in Bihl Haus’ Virtual GO! program

Submitted by rudyarispe on June 15, 2020 - 4:22pm

Ever since he was a child, 74-year-old Fermin Gutierrez had wanted to learn to draw like the pictures he would see in books and magazines. Now, after all these years, he’s fulfilling a life-long wish after enrolling in a drawing class through Bihl Haus Arts GO! Arts Program for older adults.

Gutierrez learned about the GO! Arts Program about a year ago at the District 5 senior center he attends and signed up. Lately, he’s been getting his instruction via Zoom classes on his cell phone. “It’s just like being in the classroom,” the retired owner of a hydraulics company said. “Our instructor will give us assignments on what to draw. It’s convenient because I don’t have to leave the house.”

Fermin Gutierrez holds a piece of art he made

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Bihl Haus offered its GO! Arts program for seniors in the classroom with 15 students in one 2-hour class per week. But now that seniors – who are urged to take extra precaution with social distancing – aren’t able to meet in person, the nonprofit arts organization is taking the classroom and its instructors to them via virtual classes.

“We've transitioned completely from in-person instruction to take advantage of whatever technology each student has access,” said Bihl Haus Arts executive director Kellen McIntyre. “Our goal is to help them avoid the trauma that isolation causes so that they will be able to return to their senior centers as soon as they reopen.

“We anticipate that the senior centers will probably be among the last city facilities to reopen given the exceptional threat that COVID-19 poses for older adults, so keeping them actively engaged is critical right now,” she added.

Both arts and creative writing instructors contacted every student for whom a phone number or email address was on file to find out what technology they had access, such as smart phone, internet, computer/tablet or social media.

“For the small percentage with land lines only, teachers began one-on-one dialogs to determine if they were OK and to encourage them to continue making art,” McIntyre said, adding that teachers gave assignments by phone and also mailed instructions to those without internet/email access. Students are encouraged to mail photos of their artworks, if possible, to their teachers for critique.

For those with internet and/or mobile access, assignments are emailed, texted and messaged. Students work through assignments and email or text photos of their work back to teachers for critique. Teachers respond by phone, text, email or Facebook message. Some teachers are making short 1 to 3 minute informal demos that are sent by text or email, McIntyre explained.

Several teachers began videotaping more formal 15-minute videos. Additional art instruction videos are in production, including some in Spanish.

Instructor Russell Stephenson, who teaches painting and drawing, posts tutorial videos to which his students are responding quite well. One student, Paul Gates, said "I noticed I have picked up things form the videos that I never noticed in class,” he said. “Having less distraction than in class, and the ability to rewind and pause the videos has been extremely helpful."

Stephenson explained that a lot of his classes are highly dependent upon demonstrations, which are hard to do in class so that everyone can see exactly what he is doing. “The camera gives me the advantage of inviting everyone into an intimate space where the painting and drawing takes place,” he said.

Writing classes, meanwhile, began with back-and-forth individual and group email assignments and critiques. Additionally, writing classes now convene on Zoom during regular class hours, which has proved to be immensely popular, McIntyre said. Painting teachers also began using Zoom for critiques and group discussion.

“We have found that while the first one or two Zoom meetings might draw only a handful of students, with subsequent meetings, practically every student with access attends, as word gets around,” she said.

Bihl Haus is exploring options, McIntyre said, to expand access to participants, advising them that SA Bibliotech began lending tablets. The organization has also contacted Senior Planet/Older Adults Technology Services about a possible collaboration.

The nonprofit recently distributed emergency art kits to 200 participants at Department of Human Services funded senior centers. WellMed sites are expected to follow.

“These consist of painting or drawing supplies, depending upon in which class they are currently enrolled,” she said. “With permission from site management and observing all social distancing rules, we utilized each center's food pick-up time to pass out supplies in the parking lots.”

“Students stayed in their cars,” McIntyre added. “Masked and gloved teachers maintained social distancing by placing the supplies in car trunks or back seats.  For participants who could not drive to a center, teachers delivered kits to students’ homes. Wearing masks and gloves, teachers, who called students in advance, left supplies on their porches.”

Bihl Haus is finding from direct experience that the virtual classroom requires extra time per student compared to the 2-hour, in-person class, a trend borne out in recent national research on virtual learning. “We are currently researching other successful long-standing remote teaching models in order to develop additional professional development training for our teachers,” McIntyre said.  

She added: “We are forging a special bond with students through personal phone calls, text messages and art kit deliveries. Students genuinely feel that we care about them because we do. In some cases, students are talking to teachers more than they did when they were seeing teachers once a week in class.”

As for Gutierrez, he’s been enjoying sketching his Picasso-like drawings and others, including one of KENS5 anchor Deborah Knapp Bonilla wearing a face mask. “The classes help me concentrate on details and get things off my mind.”

Bihl Haus is currently applying for a research grant from UTHealthSA in collaboration with the UTHealthSA Nursing program to initiate a study on the effects of participation in Virtual GO! Arts classes on isolation and loneliness. If awarded, the project will begin in the fall and welcome DHS and WellMed as project partners.

The new semester of virtual classes begins the first week of August. To register, please call individual comprehensive senior centers.  Find the full list of GO! Arts classes and senior center contact information at