It took less than two minutes for Bertha McDonald and May Jean Zehnder to realize that their art instructor Tony DiFatta was in the building. He'd told them that he was bringing me to talk to them about their art class and what they've been creating for Serendipity, so they were on the lookout. Looking at me a bit warily—I was an unknown entity—they turned toward DiFatta, and their expressions became bright, cheery and confident in the knowledge that the three of them share.
Every Tuesday morning, DiFatta finds these two, his most loyal students, waiting breathlessly for his arrival at Building 40, a part of the Jaquith Nursing Home at the Mississippi State Hospital. He puts on some music, and the art class begins. After an hour of listening to Frank Sinatra or some such musician and working with different media, like tissue paper, brushes and acrylic paint, the students' creations are completed and signed.
"Sometimes it's a room full of students, sometimes it's just the three of us," DiFatta told me, looking over at the two ladies.
"I enjoy it," McDonald said to me, then she looked straight at DiFatta with an unwavering gaze and continued, "Sometimes you go a little over, and I appreciate that."
DiFatta smiled and told me that with the addition of another instructor, he's been able to spend an extra 30 minutes at Building 40; he's seen the good that the art class is doing there, for these two ladies in particular.
From her wheelchair, Zehnder looked first at me and then at DiFatta when he asked her to repeat something she'd said upon seeing her artwork framed. Smiling shyly, Zehnder seemed amazed at her own reaction: "When I show my art, I say to myself 'Why, May, I had no idea you could do anything besides play the piano.'"
The class is just one of many held in every patient building on the grounds and out in the community at several locations, all a part of the hospital's Art Services program, supervised by Evelyn Carpenter. Joining these two in this therapeutic art are instructors Jeanette Jarmon, Dale Jenkins and Ron Lindsay. Together they serve an average of 1600 patients. Art Services' goals fill the back of their colorful tri-fold brochure, but all you have to do is look at the artwork created by the patients to get a feel for what's going on here—people are using their creativity, completing pieces of art, gaining self-confidence and communicating. Carpenter told me the best thing that they learn is that it's OK to make a mistake. Through Serendipity the patients learn to take an appropriate risk by allowing their works of art to be exhibited and auctioned.
Serendipity, the Art Show and Silent Auction, turns 16 this year, and like any other teen-ager, will be all dressed up and waiting for the party. Everyone is invited to attend between 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Once you're there, you'll find yourself drawn from work to work, whether it's handmade paper—Carpenter said some patients love getting their hands in that—pencil drawings, ceramics, pastels, watercolor, acrylic and tempera paintings, crayon batiks or mixed media. And you'll find yourself circling once you've place your bids, checking to see if anyone else is interested in your favorites. As a Serendipity silent auction veteran, my advice is to remain until the bidding ends at 6 p.m. if there's a piece or two you're envisioning in that certain spot of your home or office.
Serendipity Art Show and Silent Auction is Sept. 29, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., in Building 71 at the Mississippi State Hospital in Whitfield, Miss. Call 601-351-8018 for directions.