Aliona Gibson, Activities Coordinator at Oak Center Towers (OCT), found her world turned upside down last year when pandemic shelter-in-place orders began. She went from having close and personal interactions with the residents at her community and being able to organize interesting outings to having to greet people from a distance and a severely curtailed activity calendar, with all contact masked and distanced. Fortunately, Aliona was able to adapt quickly and continue to provide engagement activities and helpful resources for residents of the West Oakland community.
“Since March of last year, I have been creating monthly packets for our residents to give them something to do while they are safe at home. The packets includes a variety of puzzles and brain teasers, easy recipes, and a letter with helpful information about Coronavirus from the CDC, all translated into the different languages spoken by our residents.”
“Some residents will complete the entire packet and return it to me, a sign that they are engaged and enjoying the handouts,” Aliona says. “We have been able to do some group activities outside. Even though it’s sometimes cold, our residents show up for socially-distanced bingo! On holiday crafts day, residents still came out to make holiday cards and cookie ornaments even though it was a bit windy.”
Aliona’s favorite part of her role at Oak Center Towers is getting to know the residents. “Despite some language barriers, I feel connected and appreciated. I love the chuckles when I say ‘good morning’ or ‘thank you’ in Cantonese, Korean, or Tigrinya. It’s challenging not to be able to verbally communicate extensively with everyone, but they are still able to let me know they enjoyed an activity I organized, which makes me feel good about my work,” Aliona says. “I especially enjoyed being able to deliver handmade cards created by volunteers from Creative Spark, Covia’s creative aging program. It was during a time when I felt like a small thing like a card with an inspirational message could brighten someone’s day! Shout out to the Creative Spark team!”
Leon Kennedy has lived and worked in Oakland, California for over 25 years and has been a resident of Oak Center Towers, a Covia Affordable Community, for seven. If you are out, about, and aware, you may just run into him on an Oakland street — where he is busy capturing on canvas the people and scenes of Bay Area life. Leon paints on “everything.” Some of his most impressive works have been captured on bed sheets he has found on the streets. Works on wood, tables and chairs, glass, and metal (even hubcaps) have been known to grace a thorough Kennedy collection. Many of the materials he works with come from the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse in Oakland. He creates his artworks with markers, paints, crayons, beads, glitter, cotton, yarn, and rope.
Leon is rated one of the top 100 self-taught artists in the country. His works are coveted by prominent Folk Art collectors everywhere. Serious collectors take huge store in the fact that Mr. Kennedy’s works appear in the Smithsonian Institute, which adds value to the ownership of a Kennedy original.
Community is a central part of Kennedy’s vision of life, as shown in his painting, “Thou Shalt Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself.” Kennedy explains that his art stems from his love for humanity, and he especially loves to paint the faces of the people that matter most to him, his close friends and family and neighbors.
“I love to see a picture of the beauty of old faces, young faces, all colors,” he says. “Everyone has their own beauty, everyone has character, and everyone goes through something. My work is based on community and family, and I love doing the faces and showing the heart and love. The heart of the community — you call it love.”
It is profoundly important for Leon Kennedy that his art serves the community. In a recent application Kennedy made for a public mural, a panelist said, “Mr. Kennedy actively builds community through his art.” His proposal was approved and the mural will be completed in 2020 at the African American Museum and Library.
“The main idea of my art is concern for people, encouraging someone else,” he said. “I love when someone loves the work, and feels touched. We’re here to serve and love and encourage one another. When I get a vision, I hope it helps someone.”
He has long had a vision as an artist. “As a child I knew that art was my vocation,” Kennedy said. Born in 1945 in Houston, Texas, he moved to the Bay Area in 1965. He lived in San Francisco’s Mission District in the 1970s and painted his first public mural in Hunter’s Point during that time. In Oakland, Kennedy began by painting on cloth, but he soon ran out of canvas, so he started painting on bed sheets and other found materials.
It seems fitting that he often finds his “canvases” on the street. “My art studio is the street,” Kennedy explained. “I paint on bed sheets that I hang on wooden fences and building walls.”
Kennedy paints nearly every day, often working on a bed sheet or a huge piece of cloth spread out on the floor of his studio apartment. He paints while kneeling, as if immersed in prayer. He explains that artistic visions constantly come to him. Living at Oak Center Towers provides him with a steady home base as well as a community from which to draw inspiration. “I love the variety of people here, I love my view of downtown,” he said. “The staff here is so supportive; anything that needs fixed is taken care of right away. I’m also inspired by the other artists here. I’d love to bring them all together so the world can see our creativity.”
Leon Kennedy will have a public mural called Oakland Faces on display at the Oakland Public Library in January. His work will be on exhibition at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center in February as a part of the Black History Month celebration.
*This article was previously published in the Fall 2019 edition of Community Matters with quotes adapted from a Street Spirit article from April 2014.
Over the past year, residents at Oak Center Towers have been fostering their creativity through art classes and art programs. Aliona Gibson, Activities Coordinator at Oak Center Towers, has been introducing residents to a new art project every month in addition to supporting the community’s connection with the Art with Elders program.
Art with Elders at Oak Center Towers
Art with Elders provides weekly art classes led by professional art instructors to over 450 residents in communities around the Bay Area. Their classes focus on teaching art skills such as composition and color as well as fostering community. Participants are invited to submit their artwork for the annual exhibit that showcases their hard work to the public around the Bay Area.
This year, artwork created by residents at Oak Center Towers for the Art with Elders program is featured in the 27th Annual Art with Elders Exhibit, currently on display at the Gerald Simon Auditorium at Laguna Honda Hospital through November 18th. Aliona Gibson and Oak Center Towers residents attended the exhibit’s Opening Celebration on October 27th where, Gibson notes, residents were “very proud and excited about their work being on display.”
One resident’s art was even selected to be printed onto greeting cards that could be purchased at the event. Gibson purchased one of these cards, saying that “it was invaluable to me to have such a beautiful and professional reproduction of the resident’s work.”
Beyond their work at Oak Center Towers, Art with Elders also provides classes at Lytton Gardens in Palo Alto, and Executive Director Mark Campbell and Instructor-Exhibits Manager Darcie O’Brien spoke as part of Covia’s 2019 Creative Aging Symposium, which celebrates the importance of creativity in creating a sense of self and living with purpose. The Creative Aging Symposium will return on January 29th, 2020 to explore more aspects of creative aging featuring speakers with backgrounds in eco-friendly fashion, choreography, and medicine.
Monthly Art Projects
In addition to the Art with Elders program, Gibson has been introducing residents at Oak Center Towers to monthly art projects that allow them to try out different mediums and materials. Residents have created everything from tie-dye t-shirts and terrariums to painted flower pots and tissue flowers.
One popular event even had an edible component where residents created rainbow fruit skewers with strawberries, watermelon, cantaloupes, pineapple, green grapes, and blueberries. Gibson notes that the event was particularly popular because residents “got to take them home and some residents ate while creating.”
Beyond the monthly art projects, there is also a weekly coloring activity where a small group of residents gather to color with gel pens, markers, and colored pencils.
Oak Center Towers’ diverse population means that not all of the residents share the same language, which can make craft projects and teaching difficult. Gibson says, “There is usually one person who speaks English who will relay what I am saying but mostly they go by pictures. I always bring examples of the craft we are doing, sometimes a prototype and sometimes pictures from the internet.”
Between the monthly art projects, regular coloring group, and Art with Elders program, Oak Center Towers has created a number of beautiful pieces that have been displayed around the community on top of the art accepted into the Art with Elders’ exhibit.
The Art with Elders Annual Exhibit is open until November 18th at the Gerald Simon Auditorium at Laguna Honda Hospital. After November 18th, the exhibit will move to the Rincon Center in Downtown San Francisco through January 18th, 2020. Artwork from the Art with Elders exhibit is also available on their website.
*Image of Oak Center Towers group courtesy of Art with Elders
Throughout the country, National Night Out on the first Tuesday in August is a chance for neighbors to meet one another and to connect with local emergency responders. At St. Paul’s Towers, National Night Out does that and more.
With food, music, face painting, balloon hats, games, fresh produce, and information tables, the National Night Out event co-sponsored by Covia Senior Resources, St. Paul’s Towers, and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is a block party like no other.
“About 7 years ago, [Alameda County Senior Resource Director] Carolyn Bolton presented the idea,” says Connie Yuen, Life Enrichment Director at St. Paul’s Towers. “The idea was for St. Paul’s Towers, St. Paul’s Church, Oak Center Towers and Market Day to come together and throw a block party for our neighborhood. Every year we invite local businesses to participate by setting up informational tables and sharing their resources with guests. Each year our National Night Out party has gotten better and better with the attendance rapidly growing.”
“National Night Out is also a great way for us to meet and personally thank our local law enforcement and first responders,” says Yuen.
“It’s a way to bring community,” says Carolyn Bolton. As a high rise senior living building, St. Paul’s Towers can appear cut off from the rest of the neighborhood. The National Night Out block party helps neighbors see that “they don’t need to think the people living there are snob-nosed. It gets everybody on the same page.”
St. Paul’s Towers Executive Director Mary Linde says, “For St. Paul’s Towers, it allows us to serve our neighbors and get to know our community outside our walls. It’s about being kindness, love, and community to our neighbors.”
Yuen says, “We look forward to National Night Out every year because it’s our way of giving back and showing love to our greater community. I love seeing our residents bonding and laughing with neighbors they are meeting for the very first time.”
And the connections don’t end with meeting for the first time. Yuen says, “It’s a great feeling to see familiar faces and the same families come each year and seeing the children grow!”
“We’ve been told that many times that we host the biggest block party in Oakland. It’s truly a great place to be so I hope to see many new faces this year,” Yuen says. Linde adds, “Anyone may come. It’s really fun!”
National Night Out 2018 takes place on Tuesday, August 7. The event in front of St. Paul’s Towers, 100 Bay Place in Oakland, takes place from 6:00-8:00 pm.