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Kelowna's artistic caregiver inspires creativity in the elderly

Shirlee McKinnon points to the stems she painted as Leon Lang and Anne McGuinness look on; artist can be added to the resumé of many residents in Brandt
Shirlee McKinnon points to the stems she painted as Leon Lang and Anne McGuinness look on; artist can be added to the resumé of many residents in Brandt's Creek Mews thanks to the efforts of Graham Chambers.
— image credit: Jennifer Smith

Graham Chambers painted a mural on Leon Avenue for the city and now he's helping seniors paint the town red with their own creativity

Brandt’s Creek Mews has quite the muse indeed.

His name is Graham Chambers and he is the creator of the Leon Avenue public mural. Now working part-time out of the Glenmore-area seniors’ home, he is helping a group of residents find purpose in their days with a communal project to pour lifetimes of talent and energy into.

“Part of life is spontaneous,” he said. “And part of life is being able to contribute to something meaningful.”

Chambers envisions walls covered with collaborative paintings inspired by top-tier painters, but started the project with just one: A Thomas Kinkade garden. Twenty people worked on the masterpiece—two of whom have since passed—and it is a legacy of their time together, with the names of every contributor who worked on the finished product deftly signed in the foliage.

Chambers has a background in music, art and design and believes participation in and exposure to the arts is extremely important as we age.

Graham Chambers“You can have a pill or food with perfect nutrition, but it’s nothing without the chef to create the meal, to put it on the plate,” he said.

Spending two decades of his life working as an interior designer, later with his own art studio, he went back to school and became a care-aide four years ago. Chambers trained at Okanagan College, where he was taught the medical basics necessary for the work, but it was his experience in music years—he plays everything from the piano to the spoons to the accordion—that won him his job and brought the people of Brandt’s Creek Mews their talented ‘Pianoman.’

“It’s important in life that we do something significant,” said Chambers, noting it’s one of the Eden principles he learned in school.

The Eden Alternative is an international organization dedicated to creating quality of life for elders and those who care for them and operates off an inspiring creed and guiding principles. No matter how old a person is, or what challenges one faces, life is about continuing to grow, it states.

For some of the residents in Chamber’s art group, participating meant picking up a paintbrush for the first time, and some had to have adaptive techniques sussed out, like a paintbrush on a stick to reach past the wheelchair to the canvass.

“No one knew how to paint, but we were sure proud of ourselves and, when Graham put our names on it, that just finished it off,” said Shirlee McKinnon, who described herself as a complete novice, joking she was a paint-by-numbers kind of woman.

Leon Lang, on the other hand, had plenty of artistic experience to bring to the table. As the creator of Lang’s House of Art at Reid’s Corner, he crafted garden statues for homes and gardens all over the Okanagan. Despite his gifts, the prospect of jumping in the mix spurred some trepidation until he realized Chambers would help him finesse anything he felt was a mistake.

“I wasn’t too swift on starting and then, with the help of Graham, I got going and I really liked it a lot,” he said.

Anne McGuinness, a mother of nine from Canmore, said she always enjoyed art, felt it added to life, but never had the chance to make her own.

Talking over her time working on the painting with fellow resident Gerda Garthe, an immigrant from Holland who has painted since she was five, she said the project was something she could look forward to, never knowing quite what the day’s painting session would bring.

The Brandt’s Creek Mews art group is looking to start again with a painting from local artist, Rod Charlesworth, and Vancouver artist Robert Genn serving as inspiration. In the meantime, Chambers says he’s really right back where he started in the interior design world, helping others add a splash of colour and some interest to their world.

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