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How art made this Atlanta senior community feel more like home

A multipurpose room at the Clairmont Place was tidy and perfectly functional. In a room with a flat-screen TV and several tables and chairs, residents at this senior community in the Decatur area gathered here for movies and documentaries, bingo games and conversations over cups of coffee.

But all the while, the space was missing something — original art. And over the past two years, a group of residents banded together to add another dimension to the multipurpose room by turning the space into the Clairmont Place Art Gallery.

Ruth Gogel, who is 91, poses with her work in the gallery at Clairmont Place. Gogel, an accomplished photographer, led a project with fellow residents to put artwork up in the spaces inside Clairmont Place. Gogel does abstract photography capturing images of objects behind glass bricks. JASON GETZ / SPECIAL TO THE AJC (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

And that was just the beginning. Each floor of this seven-floor community formed art committees, and they worked together to cover walls — which were either void of any art or dotted with generic prints — with original pieces of art and photography. Everything from oil paintings of bright flowers to a gorgeous photograph of the sun shining inside the Alhambra, a palace and fortress complex located in Granada, Spain, now adorn this condominium complex, which overlooks a lake and walking trails.

And amazingly, residents making the changes quickly learned they didn’t have to go far, or even leave the community, for art. Some of the art comes from residents’ private collections. Others are the residents’ own creations.

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One of the residents at Clairmont Place is Ruth Gogel, a renowned photographer, who has won 10 Best of Show Awards. Some of her photographs are in the permanent collections across Georgia, including the Georgia Council for the Arts and Georgia Tech. Some of her photographs are in a photo exhibit in the recently created photo and art gallery.

“Cherry Jubilee,” by 91-year-old photographer Ruth Gogel, is shown in a gallery at Clairmont Place, a senior community in Decatur. JASON GETZ / SPECIAL TO THE AJC (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The photographs include one capturing a river in Cashiers, N.C., with bright green blades of grass and flecks of mica sparkling. Other photographs in the exhibit feature rusty cars and trucks that seem to be transformed into sculptures by fire and weather. And the photographs also include stunningly gorgeous abstracts with silk scarves, bottles and jewelry that look like impressionistic paintings. A longtime member of the Atlanta Photographic Society, Gogel puts objects behind glass bricks to create intriguing abstract designs.

The Clairmont Place was a pretty place with flowers, chandeliers in the dining room, cozy sitting areas. But many residents, including Gatra Mallard, chair of the Clairmont Place art committee, wanted to show “creativity has no age limit.”

“Before, it felt cold,” added Gogel, who is 91, about the residence. “Now it is more homey and warm.”

Art has also brought together residents from all walks of life. Some, like Gogel, worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for many years. Others, like Graham Kerr, are retired from working in the foreign service.

Graham Kerr, retired from the State Department, is shown with photographs he’s taken at a nearby farm recently. JASON GETZ / SPECIAL TO THE AJC (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Kerr’s interest in photography goes back to when he was 15 years old and had a darkroom in his house. He enjoyed photographing his travels around the world — from Nigeria to Indonesia and several other countries. In recent years, Kerr, now 76, photographed the Chihuly exhibit at the Atlanta Botanical Garden and had his photography on display in the art gallery. He recently photographed Burt’s Pumpkin Farm, and photographs from that trip now brighten the dining room and give a personal touch to an area that’s festive, decorated with pumpkins and silk flowers in autumn colors.

“Walking the halls is like being in an art gallery,” said Kerr. “You never know what you will see.”

Quiltmaker Maryagnes Kerr is shown with one of her pieces at Clairmont Place. JASON GETZ / SPECIAL TO THE AJC (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Meanwhile, his wife, Maryagnes Kerr, a quiltmaker, has one of her colorful quilts on display in the dining room.

Each floor of residents received grant money they can use for art. Gogel enjoys perusing thrift stores for great finds, finding framed artwork for as little as $16.

On a recent afternoon, Gogel listened to jazz while working on her craft in her dining room. She recently took photographs at the Goat Farm Arts Center in West Midtown. And she continues to create abstracts with glass bricks.

For Graham Kerr, the art adds color, vibrancy and warmth to the independent living complex, a community of about 200 people.

“It makes you feel good,” he said.

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