PAWCATUCK — Every Monday morning, Barbara Matthewson packs up her paintbrushes and joins other artists in a room filled with natural light and a congenial atmosphere.

“You have to really care about the picture when you get going on it. You have to care so you do your best,” said Matthewson, 76, of Pawcatuck, who was carefully painting an image of a bird nestled among flowers on a small canvas set up on a table easel.

Seated next to her was Anna Nicholson, 78, of Stonington, who had created a starry sky by applying a blue wash onto watercolor paper and sprinkling the color field with salt, creating starburst effects.

“You have to practice at it. This is why I like to take workshops, because they give you different tips of how to do things,” said Nicholson, who started painting about five years ago. 

Other artists had also set up their brushes and canvases around the large table in the Granato Senior Center at the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center, where Monday morning’s painting class for seniors has been running since 1999.

Not only is the class about making art, it’s about making friends, said Lucille Selvidio, 69, who has been teaching the class since 2013.

“The class is low-pressure. It’s all about the painting, to have the experience of applying paint,” said Selvidio, who taught art in the Westerly school system for 25 years. “People come to class to focus on what they’re doing here. Other people like to come here to socialize, some are old friends.”

Nicholson, who has won four best-in-shows and a third place at the Slater Museum for her paintings, agreed that connecting with people is an essential part of the class.

“My friends have passed away, so I get to socialize instead of staying home all the time,” she said.

The class is a positive space, Selvidio said.

“We laugh here and we talk about current events,” she said. “We encourage everyone, and you need that positivity. Making art gives people a sense of accomplishment and increases self-esteem.”

People can start painting later in life, she said. Everyone has a sense of creativity, which may have gone unrecognized before.

“I think they put art aside because of family and careers, and as a retired person, now they get to explore it and they find out they’re good at this,” she said. “That’s why people should try it, to explore and give it a chance to see what you can do.”

Teaching in a room with large windows is also a plus, she said.

“It’s warm in the winter, cool in the summer. We’re not in some basement somewhere — it’s fantastic space,” she said.

Peg Gwaltney, 70, of Westerly, who is also a retired teacher, said, “I had no idea that I could paint. I always had an interest but I didn’t know I could do it until I started with Lucille,” she said.

On a very small canvas, Gwaltney was working on a monochromatic “underpainting” of a beach landscape and evaluating the values in the image from light to dark.

“It’s showing me the lights and the shadows and the basic shapes,” she said. “This gives me a basis if I want to go larger. It helps me see the composition of the painting before I paint with color.”

Learning to paint is an ongoing process, said Gwaltney, who has been studying with Selvidio for about five years.

“I’m still learning. Lucille gives great instruction and helps me further my skills,” she said. “I also love the people that are here. It’s usually packed.”

Seated at his table easel nearby was Richard Steadman, 74, of Pawcatuck, who was creating sky by wiping thin layers of blue paint onto his canvas with a paper towel.

“I like composition,” said Steadman, who has been taking the class for about six months. “When you finally get a painting that comes out, it gives you a sense of accomplishment.”

The class provides a place to grow as an artist, said Anne Harwood, 69, a retired teacher from Westerly, who was working on a painting of two sets of feet, both clad in hightop sneakers.

“I’m trying to do something that means something to me — that’s my son and that’s my granddaughter,” Harwood said, pointing to each pair of feet. “I’ve done landscapes, I’ve done birds ... I wanted to do something different.”

Harwood said she found the class about three-and-a-half years ago because she knew Selvidio and Gwaltney as fellow teachers, and it’s the combination of artistic growth and being around people that keeps her coming back.

“I like the socialization and learning something new and being excited about the finished product,” she said. “There’s so much to learn. You’re always learning, you’re never done.”

The Granato Senior Center’s painting class is exhibiting its paintings this month at the Artists’ Cooperative Gallery of Westerly at the Westerly train station at 14 Railroad Ave.

 chewitt@thewesterlysun.com

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