Senior Life: Eliot School a home for senior artists, crafters

March 1, 2013
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(Photo by Robert Siegelman) JP resident Gail Bos paints in an Eliot School class.

By Abigail Norman, Special to the Gazette

Maggie Hill was 26 when she started restoring furniture, the same year she started teaching second grade.

She recalled that an upholsterer had cheated her on a chair. “I thought if I got some skills I might do better myself. A friend mentioned the Eliot School, and I signed up for an evening class.” That was 40 years ago, and she has not missed many classes since.

Hill is just one of the many seniors who attend classes at the Eliot School of Fine & Applied Arts at 24 Eliot St. in Pondside.

The Eliot School’s small building on Eliot Street houses hundreds of classes and workshops each year in furniture, woodworking, sewing, fiber arts, drawing, photography and mixed media. Classes for children and teens fill after-school hours, and a robust outreach program sends artisans and artists to teach woodworking and art in Boston Public Schools.

The school’s classes draw 1,400 students each year, with about a tenth of its adult students over 65. Classes are small, with six to 12 students each. Seniors receive a 10 percent discount on tuition.

Hill picks up old furniture at yard sales, strips and refinishes it in restoration and upholstery classes, and gives it away to family and friends. Two years ago, an attack of meningitis laid her low. But as soon as she could, she was back in class. Most recently, she was sanding down an antique bed frame.

“We always have good times, laughing and admiring each other’s work. And hammering on furniture takes my mind off the issues of the day,” she said with a wry smile.

Small in stature, but firm in manner, Hill also coordinates the Shangri La Community Garden in Mattapan, where she engages young children in gardening. Now retired, she says, “It’s exciting to be with younger generations. That’s the fun part—the classes are mixed in age.”

Henry Yager, 71, is a kidney specialist at Newton-Wellesley Hospital who will retire this year. He found the Eliot School through a friend.

“When I was starting college, my brother and I bought a kit to build a 17-foot sailboat. We worked on the boat in our garage one summer,” he recalled. “We never quite finished it.” He had wanted to get back to woodworking ever since.

He reflected, “In my field, the work is all cerebral. Woodworking gives me a chance to use a different part of my brain, to solve problems while using my hands. I find that it clears my mind.” In addition, he says, “The camaraderie with the rest of the class is lots of fun. I’ve met a lot of nice people interested in the same things.”

His first project, a curved jewelry box, was a gift for his wife. His favorite is a two-toned blanket chest in ash and hickory, completed last year.

Gail Bos, 75, followed a favorite teacher, Robert Siegelman, to the Eliot School in 1998. “Bob had been teaching art classes at the JP Art Center, upstairs at the firehouse. When he moved to the Eliot School I pranced right after him, and whenever he does drawing classes there, I sign up.”

Active in the Jamaica Plain Artists Association, Bos has half a lifetime of art-making under her belt. When she and her husband, Wim, returned from a stint with the Peace Corps in Mali, she earned a certificate in Museum Studies from Tufts University and threw herself into work for the National Museum of African American Artists, bringing classes of children into the museum to learn about art and science.

Bos’s own work now combines drawing and painting, figures and abstraction. “I try to share some of my political and social concerns in my art,” she says. Her current work, on view in “Violence Transformed” at Harriet Tubman House in the South End, reflects on gun control, the Dream Act, and other issues of the day. Viewers are invited to take home copies of tiny books in which she tells visual stories of women in countries torn by war.

“Bob encourages breaking traditional art boundaries,” she said, “but I also love the diversity in his class. People come from all parts of the city. Many of the same people come back again and again, and when some drift off, others join in. The people are very interesting, and the community there gives me energy for my work.”

The Eliot School is currently registering for spring and summer classes. For more information, see eliotschool.org or call 617-524-3313.

The writer is the executive director of the Eliot School.