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Arbutus Senior Center art instructor welcomes interest in watercolor class

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Stephen Crooks and his wife of 38 years, Susan, had recently turned 65 last September when they went to the Arbutus Senior Center to take advantage of its activities and amenities, particularly the exercise room.

While his wife, a retired nurse, began volunteering in the exercise room, Stephen Crooks decided to use his talents to start something new at the center at 855 Sulphur Spring Road.

"As we got involved, I noticed there was not much of a focus on anything artistic," the Halethorpe resident said.

"I'm a watercolor painter. I was just thinking it would be nice to have some focus on art. Whether it started with watercolor didn't make any difference," he said. "I was just hoping to stir up some creative juices over there."

The 1968 graduate of Maryland Institute of Fine Arts, now known as Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), began talking to members, and then he compiled a list of those interested in taking art classes.

Before the end of September, he taught his first watercolor class.

Last spring, he offered a second semester.

This year, as part of its weeklong celebration of its second anniversary, the center raffled off a painting by Stephen Crooks on Aug. 23.

On Sept. 12, the class will resume with 15 people who have already signed up and paid the $35 fee, which covers expenses for art supplies, for either the advanced or beginner class, said Susan Patry, the senior center director.

That number doesn't include many of the students who took the class last year and intend to do so again but haven't signed up, Patry said.

"He is a wonderful person and he really helped to jump-start our art program here," Patry said of Crooks' influence on the growing program at the center.

"He's just helped a group of people who thought they had no talent have talent," she said.

Last year, the classes combined to have about 10 students in both semesters, Patry said.

The only change from last year to this year, Patry said, is that the class will take place on Wednesday instead of Tuesday.

Mary Rose, a 72-year-old Halethorpe resident, said she was one of the first to sign up as a member of the new Arbutus Senior Center when it opened alongside the Arbutus Library on Aug. 24, 2010.

"It was just Wii Bowling and pinochle," Rose said of the center's offerings of activities when it first opened. "They had a few little entertainments at lunch time and they had lunch. It's grown considerably."

Rose, a Lansdowne native, took part in the art classes started by Crooks last year and plans to take the class again this year so she can improve on mixing her colors, something she has worked on since taking the class.

Halethorpe resident Eileen Martindale said she had never taken an art class before.

"All I knew was which end of the paintbrush was which," the 84-year-old deadpanned.

Martindale said she was amazed by the talent of her instructor and his ability to make the work enjoyable and lessons "click."

"It was one of the best things I ever did," Martindale said of taking the class.

Richard Diehl, 77, of Brooklyn Park, took the class after hearing about it from his sister.

He said he had experience painting with acrylic paints but not watercolor, which he said is more difficult.

Still Diehl painted two pictures he felt were worthy of sending to his aunt in West Virginia.

The first was a painting of northern cardinals, the state bird of West Virginia, and the other a portrait of his aunt.

"I would never have done that if he didn't show me how to do it," Diehl said of Stephen Crooks. "He pulls the talent right out of you."

Stephen Crooks has experience but most of it involved teaching children.

For a half dozen years, in the 1970s and 1980s, he taught art to elementary school-aged students at a private church school in Elkridge called Faith Bible Church Academy.

For a number of summers, dating back 35 years, Stephen Crooks and his wife have served as counselors at an art camp in upstate New York for young artists ages 7 to 15, he said.

They went back again this summer, he said.

Teaching young artists is much different from instructing members of the senior center, he said.

"I think what I found, was that the older students, and when I say older I say that very respectfully, is they were more attentive and cooperative in terms of sitting still," he said with a laugh.

"The best part of teaching, I think, is the contact you have with the individual, regardless of their age," he said.

"And seeing the spark in their eye when they understand something or experience something and realize this is something I'm really interested in doing," he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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