senior ceramicists

Senior Ceramicists Make Art—and Family

In Ava McNamee’s Thursday ceramics class on L3, the dozen or so students who gather each week create more than just beautiful works of clay. In the decade and a half since the first members started coming, the students, all in their 70s and above and almost all women, have created a family. Ninety-one-year-old Nadia Sachs tears up as she recalls one Thanksgiving when, knowing she was likely to be alone, two classmates invited her to their homes for the holiday. “You know everybody. You know the history of their lives. It’s a family atmosphere,” she says. Classmates send each other birthday cards, go to lunch together after class, have dinner at each others’ homes, and even check in to make sure an absent friend is OK.

McNamee has led the Advanced Projects in Clay class for three years. She had been teaching other classes at the JCC when the Thursday group suffered the loss of long-time instructor Vera Lightstone, who taught nearly up to her death at 87. Several of the current students followed Lightstone to the JCC when the studio where she had been teaching closed in 2004.

Some initially came because the location was convenient, or because they were looking for something to fill their time. Chanie Grossman, who is 90 and has since moved from the UWS to a senior residence downtown, still makes the trek every week to see her friends and keep her creative juices flowing. Like several of her fellow students, Grossman has held a long-time interest in art, which began when her children were small. “I was always into drawing,” she says, “but clay was new.”

Grossman’s passion for ceramics has followed her home, literally, where she admits to keeping clay in her refrigerator for when the mood to sculpt strikes.

The class didn’t start out solely for older people, but evolved as people’s needs changed, explains Clover Swann, who worked with Lightstone and has helped with the class since McNamee began teaching it.

Any hesitancy about a new instructor was short-lived. “They’ve come to trust my skills, my creativity,” says McNamee. “They ask me for help and allow me to lead them in the direction they want to go.”

But just as she has influenced them, so have the students influenced McNamee. “Working with this class has given me the opportunity to be more flexible,” she says. “They’ve kept me from being too structured, a quality that I’ve carried over to my other class as well. I’m open to new techniques, but I’m even more open with them.”

Eden Eskin, 81, a former dictionary editor, is currently attending class with an aide. (Helpers are encouraged to work with the clay as well.) She started taking classes at the Art Students League as a young woman, settling on sculpture about 20 years ago. “At the JCC, I went from live models to my imagination,” she says. She, too, finds comfort in the group. “The continuity has been great for me,” she says. “Also, I have arthritis, and this is probably the best thing I could be doing.”

At 75, Judy Sacks, who has worked as both an industrial designer and a psychiatric nurse, is one of the youngest students. She had been working at another studio when someone recommended the JCC, where she’s been a regular for 2 ½ years. Ceramics is just part of her JCC experience; she also swims, exercises, takes MELT classes, and attends films.

Growing up in India, Sunanda Parikh, 77, was “fascinated by the potter’s wheel.” After her children got married, the first thing she wanted to do was take a pottery class. She was part of the group that came to the JCC with Lightstone 15 years ago. “Vera was a great teacher," she says. "She made us work. She challenged us.” At her urging, Parikh entered her pieces in galleries; some have been displayed in juried exhibitions.

Nadia Sachs, a former textile designer who has worked creatively since the age of 13, says the benefits she has discovered from being part of the class came as a surprise—especially given that she joined it primarily because it was close to home. “I had no preconceived ideas that I wanted to take ceramics,” she says. To date she has filled her apartment with approximately 100 pieces, ranging from delicate vases to sculptures to a wall hanging illustrating the stages of her life thus far.

While these senior ceramicists have reaped obvious benefits from being part of this special community, McNamee says that she has as well. “Working with this group has been a wonderful experience,” she says. “They’re so enthusiastic. It’s very rewarding.”

At the JCC, we define success not by the tickets sold or classrooms filled, but by the community built. And in the stories of the senior ceramics artists in Ava McNamee’s Thursday class, we see success in the power of the JCC to shape people, their lives, and their experiences of community.

To read more about Arts for Seniors at the JCC, click below.

To hear the story of Senior artist Nadia Sachs, click below.