Grace Barrett, a new art teacher at Huntington Town’s Senior Beach House in Centerport, talks to her students, some of whom studied for years with Constance Wain Schwartz.  Credit: Danielle Silverman

During her first day at the Town of Huntington’s Senior Beach House advanced art class on a recent Thursday morning, Sherry Coldsmith was guiding her paintbrush along a watercolor as she worked to capture a vignette of her kitchen window and the backyard beyond.

A retired computer programmer who lives in Huntington, Coldsmith, 67, took up painting during the pandemic. “I was going crazy,” she said. “I’m a gardener, and you can only do that so much.”

Teaching herself to paint from YouTube videos, Coldsmith soon wanted a greater challenge. She learned about the class from her book club friend Mary Porter when they were discussing their passion for painting.

“So far, it’s wonderful,” Coldsmith said.

Annie Dilworth, center, with Lynne Rokoff, left, and Mia Bechtold...

Annie Dilworth, center, with Lynne Rokoff, left, and Mia Bechtold at an art class at the Town of Huntington Senior Beach House in Centerport last month.  Credit: Danielle Silverman

During the two-hour class in Centerport, instructor Grace Barrett walked around the room, stopping here and there as the 13 students worked solo or in pairs. Some were touching up paintings long in the making, others were sketching designs for new works.

Barrett, a retired middle school art teacher who also volunteers as a docent at Heckscher Museum of Art, occasionally addressed the students, explaining how to participate in Harborfields Library’s Visions of Experience, an art show for town seniors in September, or how to illustrate a page of the alliterative ABC children’s book the group is creating to donate to the library.

Barrett, 69, of Commack, says she likes to offer support and ideas, but not necessarily instruction. She recently introduced her students to the structured patterns of Zentangle art, for example, as another way to be creative.

A painting by Kathleen Digiovanni is hung in memory of longtime art teacher Constance Wain Schwartz, third from right. Credit: Danielle Silverman

Barrett started teaching the class in the cottage overlooking Northport Bay in early February. She had taken over the class that for more than two decades was led by Constance Wain Schwartz, an accomplished artist and art therapist who, after a few serious falls, retired unexpectedly last April when she was 90. Then she died from a subdural hematoma in October, when she was 91.

“It’s different when you come into an established class,” said Barrett. “I feel my position is to facilitate and to meet people where they are, in terms of what they need from me.”

“We miss Connie — that’s for sure,” said Kathleen Digiovanni, 77, who painted “Remembering Connie,” an acrylic depiction of Schwartz and students sitting at a picnic table at the beach outside the cottage that hangs in the classroom.

“She was very giving and caring,” said the retired hospital administrative assistant who lives in Lloyd Harbor. Noting that Schwartz’s husband had had Alzheimer’s disease, Digiovanni said, “This was her outlet. She was always positive and inspirational.”

‘Class meant everything’

The view is superb and the art classes are free at the Town of Huntington's Senior Beach House in Centerport. Credit: Danielle Silverman

Said Schwartz’s daughter Leslie Leff, “The class meant everything to her.” Leff, 65, who lives in Chesterfield, Massachusetts, donated most of her mother’s art materials and books to the class after she died.

“She loved teaching: It was really such a part of her identity,” Leff said. “She was such a natural-born teacher.”

A student since 2013, Carolyn Napolitano recalled Schwartz trying to teach her how to draw a face by breaking it down into four parts.

“It was a horror,” recalled Napolitano, 76, a retired interior decorator who lives in Huntington. “I can’t draw; she tried to teach me.”

Schwartz did succeed, however, in teaching Napolitano pen-and-ink and shadowing techniques, and she’s made several pictures for her daughter and grandchildren. “They loved it,” said Napolitano, who now works on colorful watercolor and alcohol ink abstract paintings.

Kathryn Geiss of Huntington shows some of the work she has created in the class.  Credit: Danielle Silverman

Kathryn Geiss joined the class at the prompting of Napolitano, whom she met at a bereavement group after her fiance died from a heart attack in July 2021.

“I really didn’t know what I was doing,” said Geiss, 62, who lives in Huntington and is retired from the insurance industry.

Schwartz suggested Geiss find a picture in a magazine that spoke to her and try to copy it.

“I didn’t know I could do it,” said Geiss, who now creates alcohol ink paintings of cardinals, flowers, tree branches and other natural subjects. “It really takes you out of your head. It saved my life. Now I have really great friends in my life.”

Sticking together

Mary Porter, 71, of Huntington, a retired grant writer who works in pen-and-ink and watercolor, said being without a teacher for 10 months took a toll on the class.

“We lost a lot of steam, and people stopped coming,” said Porter. “I’m so glad they hired Grace.”

Working on an oil painting of Chloe, her golden retriever, Regina Smith noted how classmates relied upon one another — especially when they were without a formal leader.

“We’re so supportive and know each other, so we kept coming,” said Smith, 70, a retired French teacher who lives in Northport. “And you get so many great ideas.”

A perfectionist, Smith said she’ll keep working on a piece for months at a time, never quite sure when to put down the brush.

“I’ll ask my friend Mia [Bechtold] and she’ll say, ‘Yeah, it’s done,’ ” Smith said.

“You can pick up little things from the way other people paint,” agreed Mia Bechtold, 75, of Northport, who had no formal training before joining the class six years ago.

Retired from working at a medical office, Bechtold likes to create plein-air, or open-air, watercolors and acrylics, or works from photos of scenes from her travels. “It’s fun to be around a group of artists,” she said. “Everyone is interested in the same thing I am.”

Dorothy Yuan of Northport works on a watercolor in class. The former engineer took up painting when she retired. Credit: Danielle Silverman

Travel images also figure heavily into Dorothy Yuan’s artwork, whether it’s a watercolor of a pair of zebras on the Serengeti or a sailboat on the Nile.

“I always liked painting,” said Yuan, 78, a former engineer who lives in Northport. “When I retired, I decided to do it.”

‘Wonderful foundation’ 

For her part, Barrett said she’s on hand to offer constructive suggestions — like pointing out unnecessary negative space on a student’s canvas or helping students resolve specific artistic dilemmas.

“Really, Connie built a wonderful foundation,” Barrett said. “I’m just pushing in and building on what she established.”

Hoping to keep the program fresh for her students, Barrett plans to introduce new material and techniques, like working with pastels and creating three-dimensional sculptures with beach sand casting.

Linda Cole, 72, of Kings Park noted that Barrett recently helped her make her cat’s white whiskers show up in a watercolor piece by recommending she use acrylic paint for them. “And she has fun things for us to do and we all learn from each other,” Cole said.

A retired special-needs teacher, Cole said she also enjoys painting “kindness rocks” — rocks decorated with turtles, bunnies and other creatures that she leaves in national parks for others to find. “It’s supposed to bring people joy,” she said.

Also at the class was Annie Dilworth, 93, of East Northport, who taught elementary school and has been attending since its inception in 1988. She used to work in watercolor and has since added oils to her portfolio, focusing on flowers, still lifes, landscapes and people.

“I love doing people more than anything,” Dilworth said, adding that she’s sold paintings in galleries and other venues.

Purposeful fun

Kathleen Digiovanni of Lloyd Harbor works on a painting of her grandmother. Credit: Danielle Silverman

For retirees, regular participation in an art class can help ward off depression and anxiety, notes Michelle Cheslak, director of therapeutic recreation at Stony Brook Medicine.

“It provides a sense of structure, leisure, purpose, pleasure — with a social aspect and self-esteem, as well,” Cheslak said.

As a person ages, it’s vital to try new things, she added.

“It helps anything they’re going through in their life,” Cheslak said. “It gives them an opportunity to express in a nonverbal way what’s going on in their mind and put it down on paper.”

Acknowledging the town’s support for programs like this one, Julia Frangione, director of Huntington Town’s senior division, said, “This is what we strive to do: give our seniors a purpose, a skill, a reason to thrive.”

Though she’s still new to her post, Barrett says she is impressed with the students who show up week after week.

“It’s because they’re driven by this creative muse that causes them to be there,” she said. “They continue to show up for the art, for each other and, at the end of the day, for the program. And I’m so delighted to be a part of it.”

Working on the watercolor inspired by the photo of her kitchen window view, Coldsmith said of the class: “I expect to learn a lot.”

Art classes and more

  • The Town of Huntington offers free, year-round advanced and beginner/intermediate art classes on Thursdays to town residents 60 and older. Advanced art students meet 10 a.m. to noon and beginner/intermediate from  1 to 3 p.m., both in the cottage at the Huntington Senior Beach House, 239 Little Neck Rd., Centerport. Harbormaster Art Group (independent artwork) meets 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Senior Beach House (main house). For information about registration, visit TOHseniors.com, the Senior Beach House or the Town Senior Center, 423 Park Ave., Huntington.
  • Visions of Experience, a show of seniors’ artwork, is scheduled for Sept. 2 through 28 at Harborfields Public Library, 31 Broadway, Greenlawn; 631-757-4200; harborfieldslibrary.org.
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