Step inside the imposing building that is itself an art form and you’ll see the creative energy of dozens of seniors on display.  

With the exhibition “The Power of Creativity and Community,” San Francisco City Hall has become a showcase for paintings and drawings by 90 individuals, all of them beneficiaries of a nonprofit dedicated to enriching the lives of older people through art.  

 “The byword here is compassion,” said Jon Finck, publicist for Art With Elders, which has been holding art classes for seniors for nearly 32 years and is hosting a Saturday event in which program participants will share their experiences.   

 “It’s truly transformational. It has taken many seniors out of feeling isolated, forgotten — even by their families in many cases,” he said.  

Since becoming a nonprofit in 1991, AWE has served an estimated 12,000 elderly people by offering instruction at sites from senior centers and nursing homes to the City’s Laguna Honda Hospital, a facility for low-income patients who require specialized care for disabilities and chronic illnesses.  

 In addition, AWE has shared its work with millions of viewers through the exhibits it organizes, according to Executive Director Mark Campbell.  

He’s also one of the 20 professional artists currently teaching classes in Russian, Cantonese and three other languages at 43 locations around the Bay Area from Vallejo to San Jose.   

The instructors, many of whom hold graduate degrees in art, introduce students to concepts such as using the space on a canvas to maximize visual interest and choosing the brightness and tone of colors to create perspective in landscape paintings.  

 Some participants have studied art in the past, but most had never tried their hand at it before enrolling in AWE’s classes that typically are held once a week at no cost to them. Online classes are also available for a suggested donation of $10 to $15.  

Together they experiment with acrylics and watercolors, colored pencils, charcoal, pastels and ink.  

Kered Whitcraft says his Art With Elders sessions have inspired creativity in other parts of his life. (Courtesy Art With Elders)

Kered Whitcraft, 73, hasn’t let glaucoma stop him from painting with acrylics that he’s bulked up with an additive to create a 3D effect, enabling him to trace images with his fingers once the layers have dried.  

And although he sometimes struggles to see what the instructor is doing and occasionally must pause during class when eye strain causes headaches, Whitcraft keeps returning to AWE’s classes in San Francisco.  

 “(They) stimulate the creativity in other aspects of my life,” he said, noting that he was inspired to decorate some of his clothes, including a pair of sneakers he painted in bright colors to see them more clearly.  

Oakland resident Luis de la Garza rhapsodizes about the classes he began taking in 2020 at San Francisco’s Openhouse, which organizes social events for the LGBTQ+ community.  

Until then, the 68-year-old retired museum collections manager hadn’t had any formal art instruction or even dabbled in the creative process other than making greeting cards and collages for relatives using scissors, glue and magazine photos.  

“Were That I Could Be Young Again” by L.A. Campos de la Garza is part of “The Power of Creativity and Community” in San Francisco City Hall on the ground floor and in North Light Court. (Courtesy Art With Elders)

Now, however, de la Garza has two works on display at City Hall, can describe in detail the color mixing techniques he uses to paint realistic-looking landscapes and still life, and loves the mental exercise of putting the images he envisions onto paper.  

L.A. Campos “Luis” de la Garza has enjoyed taking Art With Elders classes since 2020. (Courtesy Art With Elders)

 “I learn all the time to keep the brain stimulated — I get a kick out of it,” said de la Garza, who’s also challenging himself with Yiddish and Japanese classes when he’s not writing poetry and short stories.  

“Television can only give you so much (stimulation). And for me it’s not much,” he said.  

 Nearly all the seniors Finck has spoken with say AWE has changed their lives.  

 As people age their friends start dying off, but AWE’s classes have enabled seniors to make new friends — “and that means everything to these seniors,” Finck said. “We’re not curing cancer, but I would venture to say the effect on their mental health is enormous.”  

Campbell cites studies that have attempted to quantify the number of older adults who lead solitary lives and the effects of that isolation.  

 A 2020 study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine reported that even before the pandemic, about one out of four Americans who are 65 or older were socially isolated.   

 What’s more, the lack of interactions with others that’s caused or exacerbated by circumstances such as living alone, losing relatives or friends and suffering chronic illnesses is linked to premature death, according to the publication.  

 In a similar vein, the National Institute on Aging asserts that prolonged isolation is as bad for one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes daily.  

Art With Elders has its own numbers: According to the most recent of the biannual surveys it conducts, 83 percent of students credited the classes with helping them make new friends and 93 percent felt happier overall, Campbell said.  

 Working with paints and pencils takes their focus off declining health and the loss of loved ones, enabling them instead to relish an outlet for their creativity, he said.  

  “It totally changes their life, it gives them energy,” Campbell said.  

“The Role of the Arts in Building Social Connection” is at noon Saturday at the San Francisco Arts Commission Main Gallery, War Memorial Veterans Building, 401 Van Ness Ave., Suite 126, S.F. Admission is free, registration encouraged at Eventbrite.  

“The Power of Creativity and Community” runs through Aug. 25 on the ground floor and in North Light Court of City Hall, 1 Dr. Carlton B Goodlett Place, San Francisco. Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; closed weekends. Admission is free. Visit