Centenarian Portrait Project by Teenagers

Art exhibition celebrates stories, joy and laughter

AN art project across the ages has bought 100 young artists and centenarians together to create an exhibition celebrating positive ageing in Sydney.

The Centenarian Portrait Project by Teenagers opened inter-generational conversation with stunning results. For many of the young artists it was the first time they had met a centenarian. For the centenarians it was a chance to share their stories.

The project was created by Embraced Inc and sponsored by Estia Health, the NSW Government, the Australian Human Rights Commission and Derivan.

Embraced's project manager Rose Connors Dance paired the young artists with centenarians who lived close by. The pairs met several times while the portraits were created. The artists were required to write a short explanation to accompany their work including biographical details about their subject, interesting stories and approaches to life at 100 and beyond.

"I've seen how the friendships that develop between artist and subject, teenager and centenarian, can give both sides an enormous sense of understanding, purpose and self-esteem," Ms Connors Dance said.

"A lot of the young people have very limited experience with senior citizens, which leads to a stereotyped idea of what a senior is. Through this experience they come into contact with at least one older person, which can change their understanding of life and ageing in unexpected ways."

The portraits will ultimately be gifted to the centenarians.

The following are a selection of the amazing artworks on display as part of the free exhibition, 100: A celebration of Sydney´s oldest residents, at The Studio, 2/85 Dunning Avenue, Rosebery, from 11am to 5pm daily, until October 12.

Centenarian Portrait Project by Teenagers. Sheelagh, by Sarah Henson.
Centenarian Portrait Project by Teenagers. Sheelagh, by Sarah Henson.

Sheelagh (Croydon Park) by Sarah Henson. Charcoal on paper.

Sheelagh is a character, a wonderful person, who demonstrates more energy than the majority of my teenage cohort and often begins sentences with "in my day".

From a large Irish Catholic family, Sheelagh Good now resides in Croydon Park after living an interesting life. From the age of 18, she was a self-taught amateur actress who worked among professional actors in companies such as The Genesis theatre in Newtown. She was part of dozens of plays and performed roles such as Little Emily in David Copperfield, a witch in Macbeth and even a devil! She laughs claiming her daughter says she was typecast… Sheelagh is an angel.

Sheelagh has many stories about the men in the theatre but didn't end up marrying one of the actors. Her 62-year long marriage with three children resulted after her husband, Tom, sent her love letters asking her out to the movies which she only accepted out of pity but soon fell in love.

An incredible 101-year old, who could pass as 80 years of age, Sheelagh lives alone, catches the taxi or bus to the shops, often travels to the theatre to watch plays such as The Ghost Train, quotes Macbeth at family dinners, goes to church and attends Zumba on Tuesday's. She is also very close with her only granddaughter Laura, who Sheelagh keeps asking to her to "walk down the aisle before I leave this mortal coil".

I have loved getting to know Sheelagh and have tried to capture her presence within her portrait. I've drawn her looking slightly upwards in a reflective state, in a similar way to a portrait of her late sister Kathleen which sits in her living room. There is so much positive energy flowing from Sheelagh even though she lived through some dark times, that's why I've displayed her like a light in a dark world.

I've been truly inspired by Sheelagh's attitude, actions and personality. She's lead a healthy lifestyle never drinking and only smoking for theatrical purposes but this Centenarian believes that she's still here because "the good Lord hasn't said it's time".

Centenarian Portrait Project by Teenagers. Jim by Charlie Kennedy.
Centenarian Portrait Project by Teenagers. Jim by Charlie Kennedy.

Jim  (Mosman) by Charlie Kennedy. Oil on canvas.

Prior to meeting Jim, I had never met someone who was 100 years old. There is so much to learn from others and I think that projects such as these that aim to connect people across generations are essential in challenging and questioning the exclusion that so many face after reaching retirement and beyond.

The moment I walked into the sunny sitting room where Jim sat waiting, I felt simply honoured. Having the chance to converse with a person who has lived such a full life is incredible and grounding. After the initial meeting, and seeing Jim´s face, I made the decision to paint a portrait just of his face because every wrinkle and line on Jims face tells a story.

 Jim was born in Belfast, Ireland and moved to Sydney when he was 15 years old. While speaking of his career as a management consultant, Jim said that 'hard work will make the world a better place', it is the simplicity of sayings like these that decrees them universally timeless and forever relevant.

His family, rich with two marriages and 5 children, all with interesting lives and families of their own, affirmed the importance for Jim of the Christian faith as an accompaniment for the business of life.  Something highly interesting was talking to Jim about his experiences during the war, I was told a story where both the wings of a plane Jim was on fell off and they had to do an emergency landing with just an engine and the skill of the pilot. He landed with no casualties and just a scrape to the knee and a dent in his typewriter.

Meeting Jim as part of the Centenarian Portrait Project by Teenagers has provided me with a fresh perspective on life. We tend to focus on the micro details; school, work, money et cetera, and forget to be mindful of the bigger picture. If I had to choose one thing that I have learned from talking to 101-year-old Jim, it is to enjoy life for what it is, not to let the small things stress us out, and to be thankful of the time that we are privileged enough to have on earth. 

Centenarian Portrait Project by Teenagers. Joyce by Christina Sun.
Centenarian Portrait Project by Teenagers. Joyce by Christina Sun.

Joyce (Randwick), by Christina Sun. Oil on canvas.

 This painting is a moment of listening.

In great age, there is often a fear of the unknown, of quiet and isolation. Each day can become centred on the routines of self; waking, eating, reading, sleeping. But for some, age represents the stage of intrinsic curiosity and love for humour.

At 102 years old, Joyce Tucker is the first centenarian that I have had the opportunity to meet. Learning her life's story through conversations and photobooks, my visits with Joyce left me with a poignant, underpinning feeling of tranquillity that I had seldom felt before.

Perhaps it was the quietness of residents going about their day, or the slow yet peaceful crawl of time when displaced from the hustling Sydney city. But in our shared meetings, I realised the true essence of age and purpose.

Though time claims its definitive effects as in the lines upon one's skin, it is undeniably the inquisitiveness, curiosity and understanding, which shines through and characterises a person most vividly.

This painting is a manifestation of the patience of a mother, a grandmother, a friend; Joyce Tucker.


Centenarian Portrait Project by Teenagers. Ivy by Sophie Lovell.
Centenarian Portrait Project by Teenagers. Ivy by Sophie Lovell.

Ivy (Glenhaven) by Sophie Lovell. Oil on canvas.

When I first met Ivy, she was wearing her favourite, colourful cardigan and was more than happy to have her photo taken.  In the weeks that followed, I would learn that she had many other cardigans, each as vibrant as the other. I wanted to capture Ivy's love of bright colours in the portrait.  

When I first sat with Ivy, she was playing (and winning) a game of dominoes with her family.  In later meetings, I learned that Ivy was a little competitive, having played lawn bowls at Pennant grade for her bowling club at Bateau Bay.

When I first looked around Ivy's room, it was decorated with tapestries she had created.  Her bright personality shone through in each of them.  It was this brightness of colour, her kind and independent spirit that I wanted to capture in my painting.

I learned of her many years as a loving wife, mother to three daughters, grandmother to 9, great grandmother to 23 and great, great grandmother to 7 children.  Ivy's family told me of her love for gardening, tapestry work and cake decorating, passing on her skills of sewing and knitting to her daughters.

When I last saw Ivy, it was the day before she celebrated her 106th birthday. While I only got to know Ivy for a brief period, her spirit is something that I will always remember. I never anticipated in commencing this project, that I would meet someone like Ivy and be inspired as much as I have been.  It's funny the journeys life takes us on and the paths it leads us down.

Centenarian Portrait Project by Teenagers. Thomas by Alicia Fagan.
Centenarian Portrait Project by Teenagers. Thomas by Alicia Fagan.

Thomas (Revesby) by Alicia Fagan. Charcoal on paper.

It was Thomas' daughter-in-law that convinced him to participate in the Centenarian Portrait Project. At first, Thomas was reluctant about the idea, thinking that nobody would be interested in him or his story. 

I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to meet Thomas and complete this project with him. To say that he has a fascinating life story is an understatement. Thomas was born on the March 4, 1918 in Keighley, England. At the age of 10 his mother fell ill and unfortunately passed away.

He lived with his grandmother for a while but after a few visits to the doctor who told his grandmother that he would be better off in a warmer climate, he moved to Australia to live with his uncle in Australia at 12 years of age. 

Hardworking is just one of many words to describe Thomas. He had many jobs, his first at a poultry farm, followed by service in the Australian Army, then for eight years he was a loom turner in a textile mill before he worked in a branch of the Post Office for 30 years.

Thomas' service in the Australian army began in 1940 where he served as a Sapper in the 14th Australian Field Engineer Company, Royal Australian Engineers. 2 A.I.F. He served in New Guinea, the Kakoda Track, Borneo, Morotai Island and Laubuan. Thomas said that his war service, as well as time has shaped him as a person.

Thomas frequently talks about his wife Rose when I visit. They got married in September 1949. He thought that he had a special marriage, and I have no doubt that he did. His marriage and the birth of his two children Graham and Robin were some of the most memorable moments in his life.

Every visit with him was a delight and brought a smile from ear to ear to my face. On one visit, Mr. Gill said to me, "As you go through life, you meet new people and you change all the time." Well Thomas, meeting you has definitely changed me. Thank you.

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