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By Casey Christie / The Californian
By CAMILLE GAVIN, Contributing columnist
An 18-foot wall mural that Nancy Putney recently finished is more than a work of art -- it's a pleasant form of therapy for people with Alzheimer's or dementia.
It took the artist 146 hours over a period of 23 days to complete the artwork, which she painted directly onto one wall in the Grove, the memory care unit at Rosewood Senior Living Community.
"We're using it as an intellectual and a social activity," said Nicole Phillips, coordinator of the unit. "Most of the residents here are from Bakersfield and every area of that mural is a symbol of reminiscence -- it helps to bring back memories of good times with family, friends and spouses."
People with dementia tend to withdraw or isolate themselves, she said, and the artwork is a way of getting them to interact with others and to remember things.
Before starting the work, Putney met with Phillips and learned that the mural is meant to help residents focus on the positive aspects of their lives.
"I appreciated the thought behind it, that it was a way of encouraging people to tell each other their stories," she said. "I tried to make it as bright, happy, joyful and full of energy as I possibly could."
And, in my view, she exceeded her own expectations. (As a resident of the independent living sector of Rosewood, I got to look at the mural as her work progressed.)
Putney, like many artists, is accustomed to working alone in her studio, so working in an environment that's home to about 16 residents was something new to her.
The mural occupies one wall of the dining area. It's one of two central areas in the Grove, which is encircled by individual apartments and staff offices.
"At first it was a little like being in a fishbowl because people would come by and comment on it as I was working," she said. "But it was a warm relationship with both the residents and the staff -- they were like cheerleaders."
Rosewood executive director Ellen Renner said the mural was funded by a $2,500 donation from Rosie's Closet, and on-site thrift shop run by volunteers who occupy the independent living sector of the facility.
Putney's design was selected from several proposals submitted, she said. Requirements included the ability to carry out the assignment as well as being willing to meet the budget.
"Nancy has done a phenomenal work of art that is so meaningful to the residents in the Grove, our memory support program," Renner said. "The amazing detail and color creates a beautiful enhancement to mood and spirit in the room. It is so heartwarming to visit and come upon one or two residents standing there, contemplating places they've known, pointing out a favorite landmark to their friend or family member."
In using the mural in a more structured way, Phillips does research on a particular item in the painting and then focuses on it with a gathering of residents.
Presented as a panorama of the Kern County area, it depicts dozens of familiar sights. Among them are Taft oil derricks, Cal State Bakersfield, Buck Owens' Crystal Palace, the Father Garces statue and the Kern River.
"I talk about the history and then let them tell me about it," the coordinator said. "This week we did Dewar's and so many of them said, 'Oh, I've been there,' and then we went on to talk about their favorite flavor of ice cream."
Phillips also said she's heard residents say of the mural as they are passing by, "It brightens my day." The vibrant colors also help people who have vision problems.
When doing murals, Putney usually projects the drawing onto the wall and then traces the outline. But conditions in the Grove -- not enough darkness -- made it unsuitable for using such a process, so she created a penciled design on graph paper and then visually translated each section on a larger scale.
"That's the way it went on the wall, square by square, and that's the way we used to do it before we had all these technical gadgets," said the artist, who taught art in local elementary and high schools from 1986 to 2001.
In the past few years she has completed large murals at the Wind Wolves Preserve south of Bakersfield and at McKinley Elementary School. On Friday she'll begin one at the Mercy Learning Center at 631 E. California Ave.
"It's an after-school program for elementary-age children, where they can do homework and get tutoring," she said. "It's multicultural, very diverse, and (the mural) will have the faces of the children doing indoor and outdoor activities."
New art museum staffers
Due to the recent departure of two key employees -- assistant curator Claire Putney and marketing director Jason Gutierrez -- several personnel changes are in the works at the Bakersfield Museum of Art.
Executive director John Lofgren, who assumed his position in February, is optimistic about what's ahead.
"With every change there's a silver lining," he said during a recent telephone conversation.
Currently he's advertising for a person to fill the marketing job.
"I'm really looking to bring someone on board who feels good about working with the staff and has a wonderful feel for the community," Lofgren said. "We've had a couple of good nibbles already."
Gutierrez was a board member at the time he became employed as marketing director and continued in that role on a contract basis after starting his own business about two years ago. He left the art museum earlier this summer -- apparently by mutual agreement -- to devote full time to his enterprise.
"We're still very good friends, and we have a great relationship," Lofgren said.
Putney, an accomplished artist, served as assistant curator until her move to up north in May. (She's the daughter of Nancy Putney.)
"Claire wore a lot of hats around here, and we miss her," Lofgren said. "But she's very happy now, and I'm happy that she's still in the fine arts business."
Rachel Magnus, formerly the museum's receptionist, is Putney's replacement. She has a good background in art history, Lofgren said, and is working with curator Vikki Cruz in doing research on upcoming exhibits. Adam Schwartz, also an artist, was hired to fill the receptionist spot.
Continuing in the positions they held when Lofgren came on board are Liz Sherwyn, education coordinator; Alli Duncan, membership coordinator; Matthew Slominski, museum assistant supervisor; and Gail Gilfoy, office manager.
An increase in the education budget has made it possible to expand that particular program and to add instructors, Lofgren said.
Andrew Hawley and Leslie Wilson have joined Emily Becerra on the teaching staff.
All are employed on a part-time basis.
"I am extraordinarily fortunate to be working with a team that has such passion for art," the director said. He had equal praise for the museum's board of directors, headed by Joe Hay.
"It's a young board, and they've really rolled up their sleeves," Lofgren said. "They have taken a much more active role and are very excited about getting involved."
Sponsorships are being solicited now for Via Arte, the museum's annual Italian street painting festival, which usually draws plenty of participants as well as onlookers.
A major fundraiser for the nonprofit, it will be held on Oct. 5-6 at The Marketplace.