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MailTribune.com
  • Art of aging well

    Rule No. 1 for stayiNg young: "Keep learning"
  • Agnes Jeffries has aging down to a fine art. Some 40 landscapes, nature studies and portraits compete for space on the walls of her tiny studio apartment at Orchards Assisted Living in Medford. There's hardly an inch to add another framed piece, yet Jeffries diligently darkens the background of her latest portrait with pencil, her sole medium for the past three years.
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  • Agnes Jeffries has aging down to a fine art. Some 40 landscapes, nature studies and portraits compete for space on the walls of her tiny studio apartment at Orchards Assisted Living in Medford. There's hardly an inch to add another framed piece, yet Jeffries diligently darkens the background of her latest portrait with pencil, her sole medium for the past three years.
    "I got hooked on the graphite," says Jeffries. "It's less hassle, too."
    Jeffries has given away numerous oil paintings and pastel drawings over the past 30 years, but she's holding onto this collection. Nearly 97 years old, she figures her daughter, five grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and eight great-great-grandchildren don't have long to wait before they can claim their favorites.
    "I call this my gallery," says Jeffries. "I enjoy looking at them."
    Drawing, says Jeffries, makes life easier at her age. Hobbled by neuropathy and reliant on a walker, Jeffries spends much of her time in a well-worn recliner. To her left is a folding, aluminum table, just large enough for a sheet of good-quality paper. Pencil in hand, Jeffries loses herself in the creative process for hours at a time.
    "Everybody tells me how good I am, and I can't see it," says Jeffries. "I'm not like a real artist."
    Although she loved to draw and paint since her childhood on Canada's Vancouver Island, Jeffries dismisses innate talent as the source of her art. Instead, she cites a knack for teaching herself new skills along with patient practice.
    "Actually, it's just like learning to play the piano," says Trail artist Kim Ragsdale, who taught herself to draw and tutored Jeffries several years ago.
    Shortly after her 1979 retirement from Harry & David, where she worked for 25 years as a file clerk, Jeffries bought an instructional book for oil painting and took a handful of lessons. When she wasn't ballroom dancing, gardening, camping or fishing, Jeffries painted from photographs — most cut from magazines — until her move to assisted living after her husband died in the early 1990s.
    "I was really sad when she quit doing the oil paintings," says Jeffries' granddaughter, Clare Nelson, who proudly displays several of her grandmother's canvases in her Medford home and office. Nelson, 46, says her favorite is a seascape with realistically translucent waves, impressive for such an early work.
    "She's only had limited training," says Nelson.
    "I have to copy it from a picture," says Jeffries, explaining that by measuring an image, she can proportionally enlarge it.
    Also a self-taught artist, Ragsdale endorses the technique in her drawing classes and workshops. While Jeffries is her oldest student to date, says Ragsdale, her aptitude and attitude belie her years. Unlike students a fraction of her age, she adds, Jeffries never feared feedback and, as a result, learned quicker than others.
    "She's like a sponge," says Ragsdale. "And everybody was just so motivated by her.
    "I would have never guessed ... she was as old as she was."
    Jeffries is used to surprising people with her vitality and attests to its obvious origins. "Keep learning" is the No. 1 rule among "10 Ways to Keep You From Aging" posted on Jeffries' apartment wall. Hobbies keep her mind sharp, says Jeffries, while so many other Orchards residents complain of boredom as they decline.
    "I don't know why people say they don't have any hobbies," says Jeffries, "and they should have at least one."
    Between drawing, hooking rugs, making beaded mats, crocheting and knitting scarves and slippers, plus very occasional fishing trips with Nelson, Jeffries doesn't have enough time to indulge all her interests. She only wishes she could still cook her own meals, and smoke and can enough fish to last all year.
    Jeffries acknowledges that health problems prevent many seniors from pursuing pastimes, but she doesn't sympathize with compatriots' laments of being "no good" at anything. Since teaching herself to play the electric keyboard, Jeffries plays Christian hymns on the organ setting, regardless of who's in earshot, to lift her spirits.
    "If you try hard enough, there's something you can do."
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