Artist and arts educator Lola Fraknoi
Artist and arts educator Lola Fraknoi

Lola Fraknoi retrospective shows a life devoted to art and elders

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Lola Fraknoi is a professional artist who wants everyone to try it. Making art, that is.

Especially older adults, whom she instructs at multiple venues around San Francisco, introducing them to art techniques that enable self-expression.

“Whatever tricks I learned from my classical training in art, I share and adapt for them,” Fraknoi said. “I have profound respect for their life stories and want to allow them to be creative and to develop skills to tell their story.”

Fraknoi, 64, has stories of her own that emerge in her art. Born in Peru, the daughter of Jewish Romanian Holocaust survivors who made their way to South America after World War II, she came to the United States to study art as a young woman. Those early years and her family history resonate in her teaching work and in the subjects that have surfaced in her paintings, prints, collages and sculptures.

”I feel very close to immigrants from all over the world,” she said, and she has used that biculturalism in her work in senior communities that often include people from a variety of backgrounds.

After earning a master’s in fine arts from what was then called the California College of Arts and Crafts, where her mentors included Bay Area artists Bella Feldman and Ruth Asawa, Fraknoi worked at the Home for Jewish Parents (now known as the Reutlinger) in the East Bay, where she developed an arts program for residents. She moved on to direct a similar program for a low-income senior housing project called the Bethany Center in San Francisco’s Mission District.

“The center was inhabited mostly by white and Latino elders — and the two groups didn’t ever sit together and didn’t socialize. I was basically hired to disturb the atmosphere,” she surmised.

While cultivating “an atmosphere of dignity and respect,” Fraknoi organized activities to introduce the white residents to Latino culture in enjoyable ways. Within a year or so, the ice broke.

“Crosshatch Wrinkles,” from the series “Mirrors for Women Over 50” by Lola Fraknoi
“Crosshatch Wrinkles,” from the series “Mirrors for Women Over 50” by Lola Fraknoi

“You imbue a place with art and creativity, good food and music — it’s pretty contagious,” she said. “When white people start dancing salsa, you’ve pretty much broken through.”

She says she “got hooked on” working with older adults after that experience, took a position with Art with Elders, and later headed the Holocaust Survivor Services program for Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay, creating opportunities for clients to express what they had within.

“I was surprised at how many elder artists are survivors,” she said.

Fraknoi said that her interest in and affinity for elders may be related to the fact that her own parents were on the older side when she was born.

“I really feel very comfortable with older adults. There’s just an ease that happens after a certain age — not having strict goals, no longer needing to show off … Something happens to the ego that is quite beautiful. And I believe older adults like to open up to being creative later in life.”

An important influence for Fraknoi was San Francisco icon Asawa, who invited her to join some of her events when she was working at the Bethany Center. Inspired by Asawa’s vibrant inclusiveness, Fraknoi founded a nonprofit in the Mission District called Ruth’s Table, a center for creative aging. Though she no longer directs it, Ruth’s Table today has its own building on Capp Street and carries on her mission of bringing creativity to people of all ages, preferably in contact with one another.

After Fraknoi’s mother died of Alzheimer’s disease, she identified a market need for materials to assist seniors, especially those with dementia, in exploring artistic activities. She designed a product that she calls her Art Kit, which today is sold and used all over the world.

These days, she teaches art through the Older Adults program at City College of San Francisco, including an art class for adults with memory loss, in which she uses the Art Kit. She also teaches collage and printmaking to older adults at San Francisco State’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

“Patched Dream,” from the series “Pillows” by Lola Fraknoi
“Patched Dream,” from the series “Pillows” by Lola Fraknoi

“I have spent most of my life giving to others, especially older adults,” she said. “All that giving has to have a portion of giving to oneself, or you get burned out. That’s where my artwork has come in.”

Fraknoi’s one-woman retrospective, currently at the Peninsula Museum of Art, displays her penchant for thoughtful exploration of the important themes in her life: as a woman, an immigrant, and the daughter of European survivors. Artistically, she expresses these preoccupations somewhat symbolically, in images such as “secret containers, lost keys, unfinished stories, old-world recipes, and fading memories … how much to hide and how much to reveal becomes a constant theme of my work,” her artist statement explains.

Some of the works in the exhibit come from the series “Mirrors for Women Over 50,” an exploration of the changing relationship between women and mirrors as they age.

When Fraknoi saw her own face starting to show the expected lines, she said, she started asking other women about their attitudes and experiences with this process.

“Some women were totally attached to their mirrors, aware of every new thing developing in their face. Some had the reverse reaction,” she recounted. “Honestly, they could have used a mirror a little bit more. Other women, like me, take a look morning and night but are less obsessive about ‘What do I look like?’ It’s very freeing.”

She is also displaying some pieces from her “Pillows” series, about how sleep patterns change with age.

Inevitably, Fraknoi has also confronted the subject of the Holocaust, which so marked her parents, and by extension her own psyche.

“It took many years before I could approach the subject, but it was important for me; it brought a lot of catharsis, thinking about how to deal with the Holocaust as a universal experience,” she said. “Sometimes — like Mark Rothko — you need to abstract the emotions for them to be accessible.”

“Mirrors, Pillows, and Closed Eyes: Works by Lola Fraknoi.” Through March 10 at Peninsula Museum of Art, Studios Gallery, 1777 California Dr., Burlingame.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.