Part of the Vitality Arts Special Report
It’s long and wide, well-worn and sturdy: a wooden table that, for many years, served as a foundation, while conversations about community, the arts and collaboration flowed around it.
At that time, the table held a place of prominence in the home of noted San Francisco artist and public art visionary Ruth Asawa and was built by her husband, architect Albert Lanier. Now this wooden table, which Asawa (who died in 2013 at 87) hoped would always serve as “a hearth of creativity” can be found in a bright and vibrant San Francisco space appropriately called Ruth’s Table.
This new permanent and interactive gallery, which will host its official opening in July, is directly connected (via a newly-created Green Space, formerly a parking lot) to Bethany Center Senior Housing in the city’s Mission District. At 1,500 square feet, the multi-use space provides plenty of room for members of the community to gather, participate and create.
Originally launched in 2009 on 21st Street, directly across from its new home, Ruth’s Table is known for its focus on five areas of programming: Creative Arts, Wellness, Residential Life, Community Engagement and Gallery Exhibits.
The majority of participants at Ruth’s Table are older adults. However, with everything from free classes offered by teaching artists to workshops, community gatherings and family events, the mission of the organization is to welcome everyone to take a seat at the table.
‘Space to Share Our Creative Imaginations Freely’
“Public-facing programs are absolutely our bread and butter,” says Jessica McCracken, vice president of programming and development for Bethany Senior Housing and director of Ruth’s Table.
“Traditionally, older adults are segregated from the general public,” she says, adding she believes “there’s magic” in the fact that Ruth’s Table has this vibrant space and its own address.
It’s a beautiful place, it’s a gathering place. In a way, it’s a work of art.”
Through its programs, McCracken says, the goal of Ruth’s Table is not only to nurture creativity across the generations, but to engage the older population and help fight isolation, depression and apathy through connection.
A quote written by Bay Area artist and printmaker Alex Benedict, placed next to his “Ocotillo Series #5” in the gallery, reads: “As humans, we need comfort and also the space to share our creative imaginations freely. Ruth’s Table is clearly the catalyst for such a community.”
The first gallery exhibition at Ruth’s Table, “Bauhaus: An Enduring Legacy,” will be part of the worldwide celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus Movement, a German school which pioneered a new vision of design.
This exhibit is a nod to Asawa, who was influenced by Bauhaus while a student at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Lasting for a year, the exhibit at Ruth’s Table will have diverse points of focus including color theory, textiles, photography, activism and innovations in technology.
“We will be bringing in several high-end artists whose work will be on display, and they will also be our teachers,” says McCracken. “They will teach residents, members of the community and even school-aged kids.”
All the art created during each session will then be part of what McCracken calls “Gallery Takeovers” and displayed on the Ruth’s Table walls throughout the year. “Residents and members of the community will be the curators,” she explains. The space also includes an 80-foot white board/magnetic surface, ripe for artistic expression.
Creativity Is Irresistible
There is a beautiful mosaic, created by Ruth Asawa in 1968, circling a pillar at the entrance of Bethany Center. A sunburst of gold and yellow against a backdrop of pure blue, it’s called “Growth” and acts as a reminder for everyone who enters the center each day, that growing older still involves growing.
Jerry Brown, who served as the housing administrator at Bethany Center for 30 years and is now its senior director, fondly remembers Asawa’s beautiful spirit, her presence and her vitality.
“She was so wonderful. She came here often, and she’d bring vegetables from her garden for residents,” says Brown.
On a recent morning, four women sat around a table in a spacious common room at Bethany Center, deeply involved in a game of mahjong. McCracken greeted each by name, and they smiled broadly.
A nearby wall is filled with brightly colored tissue-paper flowers, made by residents and community members, in an ongoing art installation called “Bloom.” A simple project such as this one offers engagement and empowerment. It’s an easy way for creativity to be inclusive and expressed.
“’Irresistible’ is my new favorite word,” says McCracken, with a smile. “I want these creative opportunities to be irresistible to everyone.”
Bethany Center Celebration
In the fall of 2018, Bethany Center, funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, celebrated 50 years as a thriving example of affordable housing. Recently, it joined Covia Affordable Communities, which has six affordable housing residences for older adults in the Bay Area.
During a two-year period of renovation which began in 2016, driven in part by the need for seismic upgrades, Bethany Center’s 136 units (housing 150 residents) received a facelift and safety improvements; a parking lot next to the building was transformed into a sustainable garden connecting the community and Bethany Center residents. The Green Space hosts live performances, exercise classes and other events.
One of the special attractions of the anniversary celebration on October 18 included a bright neon installation, which ran the length of the famous Bethany Center nine-story mural, “Salud!,” created by artist Dan Fontes in 1997. Incorporating several images of residents at the time (including three who still live at Bethany Center), the art installation also underwent a facelift during the renovation period, courtesy of Fontes and five fellow artists.
Of Bethany Center, Fontes has said, “There are beautiful people who live here…it’s a diverse community that’s shared by multiple races and people from different countries and areas…It’s a beautiful place, it’s a gathering place. In a way, it’s a work of art.”
They Love a Parade
Not only do members of the community come to Bethany Center and Ruth’s Table, residents come to them. Frequent field trips into the community, to events and museums such as the de Young museum in Golden Gate Park and the California Historical Society on Mission St., will find McCracken and residents traveling, via four or five Lyfts, to their destination. (“One thing we could really use is a van,” she says, smiling.)
Closer to home, a large contingent of residents make a big impact in an enthusiastic way with their annual participation in Carnaval San Francisco, and a vibrant parade which winds its way along a two-mile route down Mission Street every year over Memorial Day weekend. This year, the rain-or-shine event will take place on May 26.
Outfitted with colorful accessories such as boas made from plastic bags (courtesy of a collaboration with Trash Mash-Up, a nonprofit founded by McCracken and her sister Bridget, which uses disposable items to create art), the residents happily participate in the experience, rich with dancing and singing, in the cultural melting pot of the neighborhood they call home.
“I believe in parades,” says McCracken. “There is no better joy for our elders than to see and be seen, to wave at people and have them wave back.”
At Ruth’s Table, The Art of Growing Older
San Francisco collage and mixed media artist Janet Jones, an artist in her 80s who also has a piece, “Vermigraphica,” on display at Ruth’s Table, writes in her gallery statement: “Creative expression is even more essential as we age…as an elder and an artist, I know first-hand the importance of a supportive community. Ruth’s Table is a unique source of inspiration and growth.”
McCracken agrees. “The [elders’] stories haven’t ended yet, there are moments to celebrate,” she says. “And at Ruth’s Table, we celebrate the arts which have the power to add to those stories, to transform and to allow people to reinvent themselves.”
At Bethany Center and at Ruth’s Table, it’s all about creating “an art-forward lifestyle” for residents and for the community at large.
“Everything we are about here celebrates the art of growing older,” McCracken says.
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