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BY BONNIE ROSENSTOCK | When visual artist Julia Whitney Barnes began her six-month SPARC (Seniors Partnering with Artists Citywide) residency at the Sirovich Senior Center, she immediately proposed creating a lasting legacy. Inspired by 2,300-year-old Hellenist mosaics she admired during a residency in Eretria, Greece, she envisioned using that vibrant art form to transform four cemented-over former balconies in the main ballroom/auditorium of the center at 331 E. 12th St. between First and Second Aves.
“It’s especially important for older populations, who want to have a lasting mark, to be able to make something together to impact the space,” Barnes, 32, said. “I also wanted to create something that would have universal appeal.”
Collectively called “Refracted Nature,” each of the four, spectacular, 40-inch-by-60-inch mosaic panels reflects a different theme: flowers, animals, landscape and figures of people. “But the consistent theme is growth,” Barnes said.
The mosaics were a true collaboration between Barnes and about 20 seniors, ranging from 60 to 90 years old, who created hundreds of ceramic relief elements, which were combined with repurposed glass, ceramic fragments and antique dishes. Barnes contributed objects, hoarded in her Red Hook studio from street throwaways. In addition, she retrieved broken chinaware more than 100 years old from Dead Horse Bay, the Brooklyn dumping ground that closed in the 19th century.
“I thought it would be great to have something older than anyone here,” she said, of her wading adventure. “Everything in there is before Styrofoam and plastic and gorgeous.”
The popular Sirovich ceramics studio was abuzz with activity. Sheila O’Brien, 75, a Stuyvesant Town resident, said, “The project was a real challenge. Julia gave us a creative outlet, something to strive for and we had to cooperate with one another.”
Shirley Birnbaum, 80, molded ceramic flowers for one panel and a bird, fish and yellow daisy for another. The Lower East Side resident has been attending the center for 21 years and runs the regular mosaic class.
“Julia enhanced everything we did,” Birnbaum said. “The mosaics are absolutely gorgeous.”
Terry Gregory, director of the center, which is affiliated with the Educational Alliance, said this was the second project with the Department of Aging.
“We found the quality of people very high, and members gained a lot of expertise and enjoyment,” he said. “This year, we were extremely lucky in getting Julia. She has love for them and vice versa.”
Barnes has her sights set on the remaining three closed-off spaces on the wall. When she woke up the morning after the June 23 public opening, she promised herself, “I don’t know when, but I have to do them at some point.”
Her team is ready.