This past Saturday, I spent my afternoon in Caledonia, Ont., speaking to, and admiring, the work of Sjanie (shaw-nee) Bethlehem. An inspiring woman, the 70-year-old technical illustration artist has been showcasing her artwork for years and exhibited a number of art shows. She has received awards in painting, scratchboard, pyrography and woodcarving, just a few of the many different styles she has adapted.
Showcasing the art of the Bethlehem family, the By the Grand – Pa, Ma, Daughter exhibit at the Edinburgh Square Heritage and Cultural Centre was a huge thrill for Sjanie. On this day, she shared the stage with her husband Bill, 73, and daughter Shawna, 24, in this special family affair for the first time.
As I walked into the Edinburgh Centre’s room, the small and somewhat rustic lodging felt cozy as it housed the works of all three artists. Sjanie’s eagerness radiated, pointing out who did which art piece and why, how it related to a moment in time, or, in her case, how she would create whatever “was in her head” at that moment. The glow in her eyes, the excitement in her voice, it made a person want to pull out a canvas and start painting right then and there.
In January 2008, Sjanie’s family was faced with a tragedy when her 20-year-old granddaughter Shawna was in a car accident, sustaining a number of injuries, including a severe brain trauma. At the time she was only in her second year of the kinesiology program at McMaster University.
A year later, Sjanie decided she would teach her granddaughter how to paint. “All of her injuries have to do with motor skills,” she explained. “We did the first painting, hand-over-hand, and she was quite willing. It was a little tough [at first], but gradually she picked up on it. She’s my granddaughter and it makes it fun. I would do the same for [any of] my grandkids.” This teaching strategy has been complicated by Shawna’s inability to speak.
Sjanie’s dedication to the recovery of her granddaughter is heartwarming and passionate. Her determination to stay active throughout life artistically, while staying engaged with the progress her granddaughter has made with art and her physical ability is important to Sjanie. She recognizes that it is a large part of what keeps her motivated. Recently, Sjanie has taught herself how to play guitar, a skill she has not mastered but has given her with a new challenge that is fun to learn. Art of any kind is an inspiring and motivational form of expression for seniors. It keeps them engaged and can encourage them to strive to find and improve on an interest they may have not considered doing before. Healthy and happy, both getting and giving family support, Sjanie Bethlehem is prepared to face the challenges that come her way.
Below: Sjanie Bethlehem and her granddaughter Shawna.