91-year-old artist brings new perspective to senior living community

11:00 p.m Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017 Lifestyle
Betty Nellius helps Sara Ferrino, right, pour paint at Buckner Villas senior living community Jan. 24. Nellius has been teaching weekly painting classes at Buckner Villas since she moved in over a year ago. Daulton Venglar/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Betty Nellius’ entire adult life has been filled with paintbrushes, canvases and palettes.

After moving to Buckner Villas senior living community in North Austin, some expected Nellius, 91, to take a breather.

So she did the opposite, instituting regular Wednesday morning art classes so she could share her love of painting with fellow residents.

“It’s been about a year since we’ve been slapping paint around,” said Nellius, wearing a Kelly green smock with her grandchildren’s names embroidered on it, during a recent class. “We started out doing all kinds of wild and crazy things.”

Nellius, who spent most of her life in Beaumont and has an art degree from the University of Texas, has been an art teacher for almost seven decades. First she taught classes at a studio, then, following her husband’s retirement, she began teaching high school art in 1970.

“I had a bunch of big ol’ football players who thought they were going to take art class for an easy A,” she said. “They hadn’t been there long before they found out wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.”

One of her favorite assignments was sending students into an art museum and asking them to retitle each piece.

“It made them really look and see what this artist was trying to say, look at the color combination,” she said. “Of course, I had to censor a few of the guys.”

Over the years, students have kept in touch, telling her how her teaching impacted their lives. She shared the story of one student who called to say that he joined the Navy after high school and ended up on a ship that docked near Rome. While the rest of the group hit the bars, he went with his commanding officer to the Vatican, where he was able to point out various artists.

“His commanding officer said, ‘Hey, boy, how’d you know that?’” recalled Nellius. “He said, ‘I had a funny little art teacher in Texas that insisted we know something.’ (After that) he treated him better than any other guy in the company, because he knew about the Vatican.”

Nellius has always shared her love of art with her family, which includes two children, three grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. In December, one of her great-granddaughters sent her a Christmas card that said, “I want to tell you I love your art, and your heart.”

“Now wasn’t that darling?” Nellius said. “I thought that was the cutest.”

Janet Burnett, who helps coordinate the art classes as life enrichment coordinator at Buckner Villas, said she was thrilled when Nellius offered to teach art classes.

“She’s full of life. She’s just absolutely full of life,” Burnett said. “I told her I wanted to do some painting classes and would she help? Of course she was more than willing to, since that’s what she has spent her whole life doing — teaching art.”

There was a bit of a learning curve early on, however, as Nellius realized she needed to have different expectations for her fellow residents than she might have had for her high school students.

“In my art classes in public school, I would expect them to do exactly what I say,” Nellius said, whispering. “It’s not that way here.”

During a recent class residents worked on a variety of paintings that ranged from birds — National Bird Day was in January — to aspen trees.

As resident Duckie Schneider, 82, put the finishing touches on the background of her painting, Nellius advised her to start outlining her bird.

“I have lots to learn, but you want to try new things, and so that’s why we come,” Schneider said. “Betty is a grand teacher. You know she’s been doing this for years.”

The only thing Schneider would prefer not to paint? Barns.

“I’ve never understood these people that like to draw barns,” Schneider said.

“Well, OK, that’s your privilege,” said Nellius, who counts Rembrandt among her favorite artists. “You draw whatever. But I’ve drawn many a barn. It’s the perfect example of two-point perspective.”

A few minutes later, Nellius paused to praise another resident’s work.

“Oh, now Ann, it’s looking grand, don’t stop,” she said. “I’m so proud.”

Nellius’ enthusiasm is catching at Buckner Villas — some residents have even purchased their own art supplies so they can paint in their rooms.

“As soon as she joined our community from our sister community in Beaumont she became involved instantly,” said Paul Clark, director of marketing and sales at Buckner Villas. “Oscar Wilde said life imitates art more than art imitates life, and that really describes a lot of our residents. Art isn’t just painting or crafts. It manifests itself in so many ways in our lives. Our residents, with their diverse backgrounds and life experiences, really have a lot to offer, and show.”

As for Nellius, she said she’s just glad she can continue to share her love of art with her friends.

“Through the years my art training has just come in handy, so handy,” she said. “Here, everybody’s much more relaxed and having a good time, too. That’s the main thing, to really enjoy life. And we do.”