Zine Making with Elders
by Alex L. Combs
It’s not often that artists are blessed with the elusive ‘lightning bolt’ of inspiration, but this was one of those rare moments. I am a graduate student currently earning an MFA with a specialty in Comics. Through my graduate program, I was connected with a company that serves older adults throughout the S.F. Bay Area in California. When I was hired as a “community engagement coordinator”, I admittedly had no idea what I would actually be doing. I spend the majority of my free time hunched over my drawing desk, and I had never worked with older adults or in community engagement.
My mentor, Dr. Erin Partridge, author of Art Therapy with Older Adults, shared an article about an assisted living facility in Chicago whose residents created zines together. Zines are do-it-yourself publications that cover a variety of topics. They are usually created and circulated by individual people and groups whose voices are underrepresented in mainstream media. Often printed on your friend’s office printer, they have been created and circulated by independent music and visual artists, Riot Grrrl feminists, science fiction fans, social justice activists, marginalized communities of all kinds, and more.
The article Anti-Memoir: Creating Alternate Nursing Home Narratives Through Zine Making published in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, describes the results of the zine workshop led by art therapist Katharine Houpt:
As a result of this collaboration, the authors argue that participating in [the zine workshop] led to increased connection and creative development in bringing voice to the underestimated and overlooked experiences of nursing home community members.
I knew right then that I wanted to make a zine with the elders– a zine project had the potential to facilitate community engagement and give the residents a chance to express alternate nursing home narratives with their community outside and inside the facility. I pitched the workshop as “an art and storytelling workshop with a focus on fun, not skill.” Over the course of six months I held weekly workshops that were open to the entire facility and ended up with a core group of about 5 people.
The art-making process can often be an intensely emotional experience for a variety of reasons, especially if it contains a narrative aspect. In the article, Houpt advised not to approach the role of group-leader as an expert, but instead to encourage everyone to engage in learning from and about each other. I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to ask the participants to vulnerable if I didn’t demonstrate vulnerability with them first. I had to build trust with them and show them that I was going to be a participant in the group just as much as a leader. I always tried to remember to thank them for giving me access to their time, energy, and wisdom, and often requested feedback from them about how I was doing as the facilitator. At the end of each session we shared what we had created with each other and often had some great laughs! I loved seeing what the elders came up with and to hear them express how they felt after working on art together.
When I first started the workshop, one of the residents remarked that she had been having trouble making friends or forming bonds with the other residents. “How do I find my group?” she asked. By the end of the workshop, she said she felt she had carved out a small community within the facility. “In the group, everything someone says is accepted. There is a joy in us all contributing.” She also commented on the ways the group helped her feel about herself. “The workshop brings me an appreciation of myself. Knowing that I can still grasp something. Sometimes I feel old and useless, but I can go home tonight and feel that there has been movement inside me.” Memory care is one of the things the facility offers, and although not all the residents experience struggles with memory, many of them do. I was so moved when one participant in the group told me that the worksheet I had created to guide us through that day’s exercise helped her get a more solid hold on her thoughts and found it helpful to get thoughts out onto paper where she could see them.
The final product was a zine that used a combination of my own writing and artwork and that of the residents. I also created a second zine that contains a collection of my worksheets and workshop materials as a template for others who want a ready-to-go workshop. When I proposed that we donate any profits from selling the zine to a charity or nonprofit, the elders were very skeptical that people would want to buy their artwork and writing– “But it’s so silly,” one of them remarked (there may be a fart joke or two). I exhibited the zine at the Queer Comics Expo at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, where the “Elder-zine” sold out. We then donated the profits to a local food pantry.
Life enrichment and community building through collaborative art and storytelling has been rewarding and fun! Art is not simply a service to entertain others, it can bring value to the life of the creator and those around them. Going forward I hope to continue to do similar workshops with a variety of ages and inter-generational groups.
I’ve made the zines available as PDF downloads for free or pay-what-you-want: https://gumroad.com/alexlcombs#PkUTq
More comics: https://alexlcombs.com/