If there’s one reason to move to San Francisco, it would be to meet Lola Fraknoi. And the wonderful work she is doing. Monday is about visiting Ruth’s Table. Located in the heart of the Mission District, Ruth’s Table is a centre for creative learning, housed in the Bethany Centre Senior Housing, and serves the senior resident population in the Mission District. Mostly Latino, Chinese and recently, Russian communities.
The first floor of the housing centre has been given over to an arts centre, created and run by Director of Community Programs, Lola Fraknoi. Lola is an elegantly dressed and poised San Franciscan, quite beautiful, originally from Peru and married to a Hungarian San Franciscan Her movements are calm, and minimal, but her eyes drink in all you say, and flash out the rich energy of her mind and passion for the arts. She is an artist in her own right alongside the daily programming and running of the centre.
When invited by the executive director of the Bethany Housing to set up a community centre, Lola’s vision was to transform the usual senior home space into a vibrant, fresh and interesting arts space. She was determined that the art work would never be patronising and condescending to the seniors. She has original artwork hanging on the walls, donated by different artists who have delivered workshop and programs at the centre. She ensures that both the residents and the wider community access the programs she develops.
Lola is very anchored in the practicalities of working with seniors, dismissing the myths that stalk elders – that they love children, that they are wise…They are people just like you and me she says – its a full spectrum. She tells me she has an affinity for elders – she understands them When I ask whether families have a large role in the centre, she waves her hand dismissively – what’s family? Suggesting that once here, at this stage of their life, residents often have to negotiate new family constellations and relationships.
The residents here are often initially wary of her suggestions and ideas – reluctant to step outside their cultural identities and try something new. Salsa for the Chinese residents? Calligraphy more their thing. Lola provides both. How does she create popular, entertaining programs that are also fulfilling and meaningful? Lola sees herself as a trickster first and foremost – she uses her warm and friendly personality to woo and seduce residents into joining in – I am a clown – I’m not scared of making a fool of myself. If she wants a dance program to work, she throws a party – residents love a party, no one can resist a party, and in that way, introduces non-dancers to the fun of dancing, introduces isolated elders to a wider community, and introduces a wider community to elders.
One project she ran was to celebrate art teachers – forgotten, unheralded art teachers. Asking them to create their own work, she exhibited their work, and invited the community to come in and celebrate their art teachers. Another project was to invite students from a design school to come into a project where they spent time one-to-one with elders, finding out how they went about their days, experiencing their viewpoint on the world. The students were invited to design one thing that would soften and help the difficulties older people have to face. She tells me that one resident confided that this had been the first time that she had been relieved of the burden of feeling there was something wrong with her, that she was a burden – and that in actuality, the world was badly equipped to serve senior needs.
As Lola shows me around the space, I notice a poster of Ruth Asawa – that artist I had met yesterday in the museum. Ah yes – Ruth – she was my mentor, Lola says. She is the Ruth, of Ruth’s Table. She lived 5 minutes from here, and was hugely supportive of this venture – lending her name to the centre, thereby establishing it as a valued and recognised enterprise. She donated her very own table – and she created the original mosaic that on the wall outside the centre.
Lola tells me that through Ruth Osawa’s endorsement of the programme she was able to kick start it into the community, and elicit the help of many partner organisations and fellow artists. I love that she is so frank and canny about making her vision work. She tells me that the great thing about young artists is that they are keen to work with older people, and more to the point, they bring all their friends with them – more energy, more interest, more publicity.
Some of the walls in the centre are painted bright warm colours – who says older people don’t like colour? Come on! says Lola. The main room has been cleared, is sparse and painted a clean white. I put up exhibitions every 3 months or so, says Lola. In one corner there is a very lush grand white piano . Lola grins and says that was donated by a cruise company, who were revamping their colours scheme – her raised eyebrows express her disdain for such excess, but, a gain for the centre. The room is bright with the light coming through ceiling to floor windows. Outside, a scattering of a garden. This is where I join in with the movement exercise class, held twice a week.
People from the community are welcome to come along, but it is mostly residents who attend. It is a very vigorous, and thorough exercise session. Thoroughly enjoyed by the participants, who are surpassingly adept and able – I am more out of puff than most. Although it is very much an exercise class, and about ensuring ongoing strength, coordination and mobility, it is imbued with fun and friendliness. At one point after marching about we break into a YMCA routine – good fun. Lola with her usual perception explains to me later, that this teacher is exercise bound. She explains that that the other teacher is a dancer, and brings much more expression and creativity to the group, which she, Lola, much prefers, But she has seen such improvement in the seniors’ movement and ability to get about, she supports both teachers.
Lola’s vision is to have art on every floor. In the pipeline is a possible building development – which would give Lola a whole art room. At present she seized upon the opportunity to change a disused kitchen into an art space – why not! – she says, which houses a smorgasbord of materials and work. Because funding is tight, Ruth has employed an artist who uses recycled materials in her work as artist-in-residence. Riding on the wave of the cult for DIY, projects are about making beautiful pieces out of ordinary materials.
Over the delicious lunch Lola treats me to, we talk of many things. Lola tells me that she keeps her own arts practice very separate from the centre. She needs to have that clarity and boundary. We talk about what it is to be an older woman, what it is to be invisible. I love that she tell me my new invisibility as an older woman will stand me in good stead for walking through the Tenderloin district!! She tells me about a project she is currently turning her attention to – I shall very much look forward to watching that grow.
I feel that with Lola there is a healthy and creative balance between keeping artistic integrity, valuing and validating imagination and expression, with the realities of working with older people. How to ensure that there is joy and compassion and companionship in the arts projects – that they are welcoming and accessible, and important to the residents. She makes their everyday life more colourful by creating a lovely environment for them, and she ensures that as they age they continue to grow and develop as people. Despite the low incomes of the residents, the general lack of money, and the constant cuts in the arts grants, Lola has managed to grow a cultural centre that has wellness at the heart. Such a wonderful visit. I am very grateful to have witnessed a healthy thriving project and centre.
I finish my day with a brief session in San Francisco’s local book store – Alexander’s. I rest in an armchair, looking at old pictures of San Francisco. Later after a brief nap at home, I head into Chinatown, and explore my immediate surroundings.