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How residents at Virginia retirement community are time traveling to the Renaissance

'I want them to see themselves the way that I see them. As wonderful, valuable and beautiful human beings.'
Posted at 6:33 PM, Sep 02, 2022

RICHMOND, Va. — Brushes and bold colors. Standard supplies for most art studios. But what you won’t find in Caroline Shelnut’s workshop? Paint by numbers.

“So I get paid to make artsy messes all day long,” said Caroline.

The creative arts coordinator at The Hermitage retirement center in Richmond broadens her students’ canvases.

“Things can get stale pretty quickly if I don’t think outside the box,” said Caroline.

On this day, the seniors are channeling their inner Andy Warhol, painting flowers.

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This summer Caroline is developing a new project. The likes of which haven’t been seen in 600 years. Caroline and the residents are time traveling.

“So this is the Renaissance photo project,” explained Caroline.

Caroline is photographing seniors that mimic classic paintings of the era.

Her portraits look so authentic they would make da Vinci do a double take.

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“It is sort of a break away from the daily. You know it is something different. It is something fun,” she said.

No expensive costumes here — just curtains, tablecloths and thrift store finds.

"This is somebody’s David’s Bridal prom dress,” she described.

Resident Alfred Blake is looking forward to going back.

“I’m always game. I mean if you don’t try it you don’t experience it,” said Alfred.

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The finished work has The Hermitage buzzing.

“Some of the time they surprised themselves,” said Caroline. “A lot of residents, when I showed them their final product, they said, 'That is not me.'”

Anne Hanchey wants her portrait taken for posterity and positivity.

“We need to have fun here,” said Anne. “Especially in this pandemic where a lot of people are depressed. So we need as much joy as we can get.”

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The 81-year-old said Caroline always keeps residents’ best interest in focus.

“I trust her a lot,” said Anne. “I know she wouldn’t do anything to make me look foolish.”

“I love it. I can get teary eyed over it actually,” said Caroline. “It is great that I was able to help them see how beautiful they are.”

Betty Davis isn’t missing her chance to be framed.

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“I look like the Queen of England,” proclaimed Betty.

Even at the tender age of 85, Betty still enjoys playing dress up.

“It’s great. It’s fun. I feel like a little girl,” said Betty. “It keeps everything fresh. I think it is great. It allows me to fantasize a little bit. I’m honored I think it’s cool.”

Caroline has snapped more than 20 Renaissance residents so far.

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“They really got into the role,” said Caroline. “The transformation was pretty great. It was pretty astounding.”

They are portraits worthy of the VMFA.

“Of course,” said Betty. “Aren’t you going to hang mine there?!”

They are senior pictures of a different sort from the 1500s. Each one a 21st-century masterpiece.

“I want them to see themselves the way that I see them,” said Caroline. “As wonderful, valuable and beautiful human beings.”

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