A stimulating life, woven around art

Their choices bring vitality to NewBridge senior complex

Buyers Natalie Wolf (left) and Phyllis Robbins at NewBridge on the Charles. Buyers Natalie Wolf (left) and Phyllis Robbins at NewBridge on the Charles. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)
By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / August 2, 2009

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Art is - or should be - like life, says 89-year-old Natalie Wolf. Vibrant, active, and colorful, surrounding and stimulating people at every turn.

Wolf’s lifelong passion has been designing beautiful spaces, and her current specialty is making some of the region’s senior housing developments resemble galleries of contemporary art.

Forget the stereotypical dark, drab facilities of bygone days. Wolf favors mixed media, bronze, colored glass, and textured murals, especially for older people.

“Art is supposed to make you think, to make us feel alive,’’ she said while walking through the halls of her latest project, NewBridge on the Charles in Dedham, a sprawling, 162-acre development with 256 independent-living homes and 91 assisted-living apartments.

The main hall of the community center features a massive, 32-foot-long wall installation, commissioned by Wolf for the space. The piece wasn’t named by the artists, a husband-and-wife team from New Hampshire, but Wolf has a nickname for it: “Vitality.’’

“It’s not the kind of art you’d expect to see in a senior living facility,’’ said Ruth Stark, a spokeswoman for Hebrew SeniorLife, a Boston-based nonprofit organization that held a June 15 grand opening at the complex, one of its eight sites across the region. “But the company has so much confidence in her judgment and taste. She has exquisite taste.’’

Wolf spends several days a week visiting local artists, art shows, and public library galleries around New England looking for the next piece that will strike her fancy.

NewBridge, for its part, is making the art a core part of its programming. It is developing an artist-in-residence program, Stark said, and on a recent morning had a half-dozen easels set up in a sunny studio space for residents to practice their skills at still-life sketches.

Ruth Stanger, 78, who moved to NewBridge from Brookline in mid-June and participates in the art class, said she was attracted by the beautiful art on the walls.

“I look around and think, ‘I would have picked that myself.’ My granddaughter came to visit here and said, ‘This looks like MoMA,’ ’’ for Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art.

Another student, Irma Etscovitz, 84, who moved from Newton, said her own taste runs more to the Old Masters, but she enjoys living in a space where art and aesthetics are a priority. She and her husband, retired radiologist Eli Etscovitz, 86, were longtime members of the Newton Art Association, and don’t want to lose their connection and passion for art, she said.

Wolf walks around the complex’s community center as if she lived there, stopping to take in a piece in its new home, even straightening the occasional crooked picture when necessary.

Choosing art isn’t rocket science, said Wolf, a former longtime Newton resident now living in Portsmouth, N.H. “The crucial question you have to ask yourself is, ‘Can you live with it?’ ’’

A longtime flower show judge and trustee emeritus of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, Wolf has been volunteering with Hebrew SeniorLife for more than 50 years. As a girl, Wolf accompanied her mother, Ethel Wasserman, around the streets of Dorchester looking for donations for the organization’s earliest incarnation, the Hebrew Moshav Zekainim Association, then a home for frail Jewish elders in the Boston neighborhood.

She became the organization’s volunteer art consultant about 35 years ago, when its then-president asked whether she could follow in the path of the Hebrew Home in the Bronx, a facility considered the cutting-edge leader of fine art and assisted living.

Since then, she has helped furnish Hebrew SeniorLife’s assisted-living and retirement homes in Brookline, Canton, Randolph, Revere, and Boston’s Roslindale section.

Age has not slowed Wolf down too much, though in recent years the grandmother of four has worked in concert with a close friend, 87-year-old Phyllis Robbins of Brookline.

The two have been friends since they met just after World War II as newlyweds living in the same apartment complex, Hancock Village, in West Roxbury.

Robbins is a longtime volunteer for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where she leads hands-on art tours for blind patrons. Her late husband, Melvin Robbins, was a professional courtroom sketch artist and portrait painter whose works hang in the State House and at Harvard University.

“We try to bring people together through art and create community,’’ said Robbins.

Too often people forget that art is a lifelong passion, not something to be abandoned in one’s twilight years, she said.

“The point of art is to make you think and feel. It needs to be with us at every stage of our lives.’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at

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