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A Chance Encounter With an Artist : After suffering a stroke that took the use of his right hand, Bert Godfrey of Oxnard trained himself to draw with chalk, using his left hand. And then last year, one of his pastel seascapes won first place.


Serendipity often puts me in the company of delightful and inspiring people. Take for instance, Bert Godfrey, a.k.a "Bert the Flirt."

My chance encounter with the cheery resident of Maywood Acres Healthcare Center in Oxnard began during a recent museum presentation that morning at the center. Godfrey began talking to me about antique hand tools his father used to have. Our meeting ended with the discovery that, less than two years ago, Godfrey picked up chalk pastels for the first time. He now is a prize-winning artist.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The morning we met, volunteer docents Betty Merrifield and Betty Matson had brought old-fashioned hats and an array of antique household items from the Ventura County Museum of History and Art.

Merrifield, who also is an ombudsman in the Ventura County Long Term Care program, said senior residents like to identify the implements. Many also enjoy reminiscing about periods in their lives that they associate with the objects, she said.

At the presentation I attended, a stereopticon and manually operated egg beater were very popular. And many participants, including Godfrey, donned hats from the 1920s to the '50s.

Looking rather rakish in his chapeau, Godfrey, a voracious reader, announced that he'd already read three morning papers and had delivered mail to fellow residents, a job he particularly enjoys.

But even more, it seems, Godfrey, 83, loves drawing.

Last year, one of his pastel seascapes won first place in the eighth annual Hillhaven Art & Poetry Competition. The national contest is judged by three professional artists, according Pat Wiggins, project director at Hillhaven Corp.'s southern regional office in Raleigh, N.C. With more than 340 long-term care centers across the country, Hillhaven is the nation's second largest such care provider.

"I created the project in 1984 to challenge the residents and to educate the public outside the nursing home industry that there is definitely creativity and quality life in nursing homes," Wiggins said.

Wiggin recalled one incident that convinced her the project also had a powerful message. "Four years ago, I had an artist, whose work hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, come in to judge," she said. "He was totally astounded by the talent, and chose 77 first places among 742 pieces of art.

"After three hours of reviewing the art," she said, "he approached my desk with a tear in his eye saying, 'I thought old people in nursing homes just stared out the window and waited to die. This has definitely turned my thinking around.' "

Beyond the high caliber of other entries, Godfrey's first-place feat was even more noteworthy because he only recently learned to paint with his left hand. In 1977, a stroke put him in a wheelchair, left him with slurred speech and stole the use of his favored right hand.

"Most people have a series of strokes. I had one big one and said that's enough," he said good-naturedly.

Godfrey came to Maywood about 3 1/2 years ago. By all accounts, he brightens everyone's day with his energy and high spirits. And as we toured the hall together, the frequent hugs he received from staff members revealed the origin of his nickname.

Despite any flirtations, though, Godfrey's heart still belongs to his wife, Wanda, a local real estate agent who visits two or three times a week. They go out to lunch or a movie, or seek an outdoor location where he can sketch.

"A lot of poor souls just sit and look at the wall all day," Godfrey said while drawing beneath a skylight. "I'm 83 going on 19 and enjoying every day of it. But I love life. I'm so happy to be here. My wife and I used to do oil painting many years ago. So a year and a half ago, I decided to paint again. I relearned with my left hand."

Oil painting, however, turned out to be tougher than he imagined. So he chose chalk instead, since oil painting requires two hands to clean and handle the brushes.

"Bert's given away over 200 drawings to residents, staff and visitors," said Nofo Aina, activities director at Maywood.

With a wink, Godfrey added that he uses standard-size paper for all his drawings, in order to minimize the cost to recipients when they want to buy a frame.

In addition to adorning the walls of staff and friends, some of Godfrey's work is featured with other winning entries in "Unbroken Circles/Book VIII," a 63-page collection of art and poetry by Hillhaven residents all across the country.

Godfrey has entered the art contest again this year, and will hear the results of the competition, along with other senior artists, in late September.

"They just love competing against each other," said Wiggins, adding that entries are received from residents who were professional artists earlier in their lives, as well as from those who never painted before.

"The beauty of it is they both can get first place," she said. "And they found their talent in the nursing home."


Madeline Miedema, local historian and Oxnard resident since 1918, today will show many of her historical slides of Oxnard as part of the Forever Young organization's luncheon for seniors age 55 and older. The showing takes place at Oxnard First Baptist Church, 936 W. 5th St. Cost of the luncheon that begins at 11:45 a.m. is $6 per person. Miedema's presentation will begin at 12:30 p.m. For reservations, call 483-2205.

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