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101-Year-Old Artist Defies Age To Pursue Artistic Passions

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Art therapist Sandy Geller (right) has been helping 101-year-old Kathleen Williams (left) return to her lifelong artistic passions.
Rebecca Sheir
Art therapist Sandy Geller (right) has been helping 101-year-old Kathleen Williams (left) return to her lifelong artistic passions.

It's often said "it isn't the years in your life that count, but, rather, the life in your years."

And Maryland resident Kathleen Williams fits that sentiment to a T. The native Briton is 101 years old. But honestly, as she sits in the dining room of her Chevy Chase home — her bright eyes flashing, her silver hair elegantly styled — you'd never know she's a centenarian.

She's going deaf, and is now considered legally blind, but none of that has stopped Kathleen from returning to her biggest passion from her younger years: art.

"I've always been an artist," she says. "Done something in the art world."

Kathleen began drawing as a young girl in Northamptonshire, England. She eventually enrolled in art school in London. And after moving to the D.C. area in 1951, she spent decades teaching art in D.C. Public Schools, and selling her intricate macramé jewelry at the Torpedo Factory in Old Town Alexandria.

Her cozy house and elaborate backyard garden feature much of her sculpture. Many of her pieces have appeared in galleries and museums, including the Corcoran and Smithsonian.

"I was busy doing creative things, all my life, really," Kathleen says. "So it's sort of in the fingers."

And art therapist Sandy Geller, who's been working with Kathleen for more than a year now, through the aging-in-place organization Chevy Chase At Home, says getting those "fingers" to make art again is the key.

"That is exactly what we wanted to tap in to," she says. "Because even though [her] sight is impaired, we wanted to tap in to the memory."

It had been a while since Kathleen had done any art when she met Sandy. But lately, they've been creating these whimsical, colorful figures — from cats to mice to life-sized monkeys — out of crumpled newspaper, masking tape and paint.

"We wanted to find a way that she could let her hands remember how to sculpt, even though she can't see very clearly," Sandy says. "We tried papier mache, we tried other things. And then quite spontaneously, one day there was a newspaper on the table, and I looked around and Kathleen had sculpted a rabbit! I mean, there it was!

"And as you know rabbits multiply, but it hasn't stopped multiplying yet!" she says with a laugh.

But all this art, and art making, doesn't just stay within the walls of Kathleen's Elm Street home. Last Halloween, she and Sandy planned a crafting fair for the neighborhood, at which Kathleen displayed a bunch of her paper-and-tape figures, dressed up as The Woodland Witch of Elm Street, and demonstrated how to use regular household items to make your own, inexpensive Halloween decorations.

Then, this past May, Kathleen and Sandy organized what they called "A Celebration of Spring."

"All of these animals and figures were present," Sandy says. "[And] a May Pole dance. And there, Kathleen was the Queen of the May. And again, the neighborhood, from wee children to others well on in their years, and it was a celebration. It was lovely!"

Kathleen and Sandy have a whole slew of ideas for future projects. Though as the women sit and smile side by side, Sandy says she knows who the real driving force is in this dynamic duo.

"You're the one who keeps coming up with the projects," she says to Kathleen.

The latest endeavor is a series of art classes, led by Kathleen in her home. Though Kathleen has asked Sandy to call them "workshops sharing her experience."

"'No, you're not teaching the method,'" Sandy recalls Kathleen saying. " 'You want to share the experience of the method.'"

And Kathleen hopes to keep her artistic experiences going. Or rather, she says she must.

"It keeps you alive," she says. "Literally. It keeps you in touch and alive.

"One of the sad things about age is that people stop doing things. But I have a theory, that life is lived in chapters. And you come to the end of a chapter, and you can be negative about it, or positive about it. And life is full of chapters! Look how many chapters I have, being as ancient as I am!"

Kathleen Williams may call herself "ancient," but at the rate she's going, she's bound to be the life of the party when she celebrates her birthday in December, and turns 10 years young.

[Music: "Young at Heart" by Landon Pigg from Coffee Shop EP]

Photos: Kathleen Williams


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