Creating Legacy Thrones: Generations United 

Mel Alexenberg and Miriam Benjamin

Generations United, September 2003.

Three towering, twenty-foot high, two-ton thrones clad with colorful ceramics facing Biscayne Bay in Miami are intergenerational artworks created by elders and art students working together under our artistic direction.  We brought together African-American elders from the Greater Bethel AME Church, Hispanic elders from Southwest Social Services Program, and Jewish elders from the Miami Jewish Home for the Aged to work with art students from New World School of the Arts to create “Legacy Thrones.”  Through aesthetic dialogue between these elders and young people, valued traditions of the past were transformed into artistic statements of enduring significance.  Together, young hands and old shaped wet clay into colorful ceramic relief elements collaged onto three monumental thrones, works of public art constructed from steel and concrete.

Creative teams of three, one elder and two art students, worked together with us one day each week for a full academic year.  The students worked on this project within the framework of a course in environmental public art and the elders as vital involvement in lifelong learning.  All sixty participants worked simultaneously in one huge studio space. At their first meeting, each pair of students listened to an elder tell about her life experiences and cultural roots.  Life review methodologies developed by Susan Perlstein of Elders Share the Arts facilitated elders looking back and reaching inward to trigger reminiscences of events and images of personal and communal significance. The challenge at the next meetings was to explore ways of transforming reminiscences that reveal cultural values into visual images that can be expressed through clay.  The eminent psychologist Erik Erikson explains: “For the ageing, participation in expressions of artistic form can be a welcome source of vital involvement and exhilaration…. When young people are also involved, the change in the mood of elders can be unmistakably vitalizing.”

Working parallel to each other in one large studio, the three culturally different groups of elders continually engaged in dialogue with each other, an opportunity that rarely exists outside of the studio.  African-American, Hispanic, and Jewish old people in their ethnically specific homes for the aged and senior centers seldom encounter one another.  Working alongside each other and learning about each other’s cultures, they came to realize how much they shared in experiences and in values.   The theme of the “Legacy Thrones” art project became the biblical passage “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is when we sit together” (Psalm 133).  In Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America, Lucy Lippard describes our art project’s values: “I am interested in cultural dissimilarities and the light they shed on fundamental human similarities…in art that combines a pride in roots with an explorer’s view of the world as shared by others.”

The elders worked with clay to make relief sculptural statements of images from their personal and collective past.  They painted them with colorful glazes creating numerous collage elements that were cemented to the thrones until the sculptural surfaces were entirely clad in ceramics.  Our role as the artists was to integrate all the elements into aesthetically powerful expressions of each ethnic community.  Although nearly all of the elders had no prior experience in art production or working with clay, they developed their technical prowess and aesthetic judgment during their year of participation.  While the students facilitated the elders’ growth artistically, the young people’s lives were enriched through creative collaboration with partners blessed with a long life of fertile experiences.  By sharing their stories with the students, transforming them into artistic images, and leaving a legacy for future generations, the elders added deeper layers of meaning to their lives.

Mel Alexenberg is Professor of Art and Behavioral Sciences at the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel, Israel.  He was former Dean of Visual Arts at New World School of the Arts in Miami and Associate Professor of Art and Education at Columbia University.

Miram Benjamin is an artist living in Petah Tikva, Israel, and Director of Intergenerational ArtLinks.  She studied gerontology at Florida International University and ceramic sculpture at Pratt Institute where she earned her MFA degree.