Becky Leventis has a lot of tips for takers of her watercolor painting class, but one is essential: “I always tell people, don’t worry if your hand shakes.”
It’s a common insecurity from her audience: retirees at local senior living facilities. They may have lost their dexterity; an asset, of course, to a good painter. Leventis has learned to think about it differently.
“Almost everybody, when you get old, you have different things happen. So a lot of people have sight problems and some people have problems with their hand shaking,” she said. “So it’s something that I tell people: If your hand shakes, your painting is going to look more like (Claude) Monet.”
Who wouldn’t want to emulate the beloved French impressionist, even if it’s not by choice?
Leventis teaches once a month at The Quarry Senior Living, which has 295 apartments for seniors. On a recent weekday, she and her husband of 56 years, Alex Leventis, were setting up shop in the Marble Room on the second floor ahead of a two-hour class.
Locations: The Quarry Senior Living, 415 S.E. 177th Ave.
Glenwood Place Senior Living, 5500 N.E. 82nd Ave.
Becky Leventis also gives painting lessons at her home in Lake Shore, where she has a studio.
Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Outlook: Although Leventis isn’t technically a therapist, arguably her classes are a form of art therapy, a field the BLS doesn’t exclusively track. However, it does track the more general “recreational therapists,” which projects employment to grow 7 percent from 2016 to 2026. According BLS: “As the large baby boom generation ages, they will need recreational therapists to help treat age-related injuries and illnesses and to help them maintain a healthy, active lifestyle.” The annual mean wage for recreational therapists in the Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, Ore., metropolitan area is $54,960.
“Right now, I’m doing two classes regularly, and one occasionally. I’ve cut back because I’m getting older too,” said Leventis, who did not want to disclose her age. “At one time I was doing like six classes a month, and I didn’t have any free time for myself.”
It’s been a small source of income for her since she retired in the mid-1990s from selling skylights for houses, she said. Quarry residents each brought in three $1 bills that they sat next to their paint trays — a small fee to help Leventis pay for art supplies, which she said “keep going up in price.”
Something to look forward to
The Quarry, through its management company Milestone Retirement, pays Leventis to teach interested residents there as an outside vendor, not unlike the music and yoga instructors that also teach classes there.
“We have some people who have never done art before, and maybe it was something that they wanted to do, but didn’t have time to access and now they’re pursuing it,” said Laura McCormack, the Quarry’s life enrichment director, who also leads a choir group at the facility.
Such was the case for Bonnie Walden, a retired Educational Service District 112 employee who has lived in independent living for the last three years. With the help of Leventis, Walden has completed 25 paintings, which she said cover her apartment walls.
The painting that the group would work on was of a winter sunset scene — a vertical image featuring robins and tall evergreen trees.
“It’s been great. And since I’ve started watercolor, I’ve started acrylic,” Walden said. “I find it relaxing and it fulfills my need to do something creative.”
Studies have shown that visual arts can help older adults with a number of things, including improved self-esteem as well as reduction of negative emotions and anxiety. It also helps them to feel their life is still meaningful.
Leventis, who lives in Lake Shore, grew up in the “little farm town” of Dayton and attended Whitman College to study art. She stopped when she and her husband married and his job as a submarine officer moved them around the country. They settled in Vancouver in 1970. But in 2000, Leventis said the two kept their home here but moved back to Dayton to help care for her quadriplegic mother, who had multiple sclerosis.
Leventis’ work teaching art started while back in Dayton. She said that in the wintertime, there were no classes for adults and it was difficult driving to Walla Walla in bad weather, so she put an ad in the Dayton Chronicle advertising watercolor lessons.
“I had 18 people respond, including the sheriff and his wife … a couple of guys who were farmers,” she said. She split the class into two, a daytime and nighttime class. Columbia County also solicited her help in teaching at-risk teenagers to paint around 2002, she said. Returning to Vancouver in 2006, she didn’t want to stop teaching painting — especially as a way to help people.
Leventis recalled lots of stories she’s had over the years as she has taught both at The Quarry and its sister facility, Glenwood Place Senior Living.
“I have one lady (who is) legally blind. Actually I’ve had a few people who have macular degeneration,” she said. “So she could see colors. I’d tell her I’m going to paint some red roses today, and even though she couldn’t see anything on the paper other than colors, from memory she would paint something that looked like a rose. This woman had been a very good artist at one time.”
In January 2018, the flu virus ripped its way through The Quarry, but even that didn’t stop Leventis from teaching. Staff aired activities over the center’s in-house TV channel.
“I filmed Becky teaching a class, and then the activity team delivered all paint supplies to the apartments of residents who were interested in taking the class. We aired it twice,” McCormack said.
‘A happy time’
Back in the Marble Room, Leventis held up a painting of children laughing as they played in the snow.
“These are my grandkids,” she told the small group of six, who responded with a collective “awe.”
“This was probably eight years ago. We had snowfall at Christmas. We live on a hill and all the kids were there for Christmas. My daughter actually took the picture and then I did a painting of it,” she recalled. She also showed them a detailed painting she had completed years ago of her then-16-year-old son standing next to a ’55 Chevy.
Then Leventis got to work on the day’s winter scene painting, showing the students how to get a nice lavender-colored sky — although she wouldn’t mind if they painted the sky an entirely different color. Like the shaky hands, the color changes could be a result of degenerating functions. She would observe as much when teaching to those living in the senior home’s Memory Care unit, she said.
Even the prolific Monet wasn’t immune to such outcomes. When he hit his 60s in the 1910s, he developed cataracts, which altered how he perceived colors and influenced the outcome of his later paintings. The condition immensely frustrated Monet. Leventis said she just hopes the activity gives the seniors some sort of comfort.
“Hopefully it’s a time where they’ve got control and they can paint whatever they want to,” Leventis said. “They might’ve had a really stressful day, they might’ve had a really bad month when they’ve lost friends of theirs. But, they tell me that they look forward to coming to paint because it’s a happy time. So if I can just give them a little hour or two of happiness, that makes me feel good.”