The Wisdom of Age Project—Hampton Roads, Va. 2017 Documenting Life Stories & How We Get By
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"An Artist's Story"

story & sound slideshow by Kaylie Deshler

Brett Francis is a lifelong resident of the Virginia Peninsula, as she was born and raised in Hampton. Brett gives much credit to her loved ones for shaping her to be the vibrant woman she is today, at the age of 70. She has lived a life that tells a unique story. Beginning with being a young girl diagnosed with cerebral palsy who went on to become the poster child for the March of Dimes, to moving to Monroe, North Carolina, to become a caregiver to her parents, to becoming a faithful and passionate wife of a much older man. As Brett sits alone in her loveseat speaking to me, she reflects on the life she has lived and the fulfillment it has given her.

An Artist's Story


“They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night” – excerpt from Eleonora by Edgar Allen Poe


Although her appreciation for art did not enter her life until her 67th year, Brett Francis would not trade the past three years for anything. Her apartment makes that apparent, as the walls are now adorned with her artwork. Frames of different sizes and shapes hug images of Brett’s memories. The adjacent walls in the far-left corner of the room create an escape. This must be where she daydreams.


Pegboards align the walls from floor to ceiling; unfilled holes beckon for her work and empty areas leave room for many memories to come. A wooden easel stands facing past work. To its side sits an antique trunk filled with photo albums that paint their own pictures of Brett’s past. As the easel is cleared off, out of use for work, the trunk lies closed. It is not until she takes her place in front of a blank canvas that the trunk is opened. Cherished memories are sifted through; some are even sought after, and one is eventually placed on the easel for inspiration. As pigment is transferred swiftly to paper, brushstroke-by-brushstroke, daydreams of decades past paint vivid pictures in Brett’s mind. With the recreation of each memory she uncovers new aspects. It is through painting that she illuminates these memories to herself.


Three years ago, friends of Brett persistently encouraged her to attend art class with them. At the time, Karen Woodward, a retired York County Public Schools art teacher hosted a small group of friends in her home every Wednesday. “I can’t draw. I can’t even make a straight line with a ruler,” Brett recalls telling friend Julie Miller. Yet she agreed to go and watch one Wednesday afternoon. The freedom to paint whatever they desired appealed to Brett. She watched as each recreated a memory of their own and she yearned to be able to do the same. The following Wednesday Brett returned to the circle, this time with a paintbrush in hand.


Years later this circle has yet to be broken. Excitement for their gatherings is written all over Brett’s face as we plan on when to meet. The outer corners of her mouth widen into a genuine smile each time Wednesdays are mentioned; she is quick to remind me that Wednesdays are busy for her.


When I first enter her apartment, I am not only welcomed warmly but taken into a world separate from my own. Each wall tells a story of a phase in Brett’s life, no two are alike. Some stories are told louder than others as certain paintings hang more prominently, demanding to be seen as they dominate their space. Perhaps it is these paintings that Brett cherishes the most.


 The first of three prominent paintings is of a tree. It hangs as a centerpiece behind her living room couch. Painted as if the artist had laid down beneath its branches to take in every aspect of its beauty, it is astounding that this was Brett’s first painting. The scaling of color up the trunk alone demonstrates the time and patience dedicated to it.










The second painting is a portrait of Edgar Allen Poe. As a self-proclaimed historian, Brett takes much interest in the fact that Poe spent a great deal of his life in Virginia. At first glance one sees the black silhouette on a white canvas. It is not until further examination that you realize this painting is far more than that. It is comprised of several black ravens resting on branches that construct every feature of the portrait.









 The final prominent painting is an old Victorian home. In the foreground is a porch that wraps tightly to the siding, as if it is holding the home together. This home tells a unique story. It was the home of Brett’s childhood best friend and eventually the home of Brett and her late husband. A man whom Brett knew several years before being wed and loved very deeply. Brett remained in the house after his passing, holding the home together herself, up until her move to Mennowood, a retirement community in Newport News, Virginia. Of all the paintings that show detailed glimpses into her life, it seems that this one tells her favorite story. ◊

Finding a Friend I did not know what to expect when beginning this class in "Community Storytelling & Documentary Studies," but I could not be happier with the result. All preconceived notions I had towards elderly care were shifted due to my time spent with Brett Francis. Upon my first visit, I suddenly had a feeling that she would become something much more than the subject of my work. She made our meetings feel as if they were an old pastime of mine. The company she keeps began to feel like close friends and my nerves about visiting were quickly calmed by her caring demeanor. Though my work for this class has come to an end, I know my friendship with Brett is just beginning.
Kaylie Deshler is lively and passionate, as evidenced through her academics and outside involvement. She is majoring in Marketing and Finance with the goal of working in healthcare administration and geriatric care, and is minoring in Civic Engagement - the reason she got connected with this class. Kaylie has enjoyed breaking out of her comfort zone with the project format, although she is passionate about the elderly and making life better for them; her favorite part of this project has been being able to know that she is bringing a smile to Brett’s face whenever she comes to visit.

About the Documentarian