Capturing Personal Histories in Art

Besides written autobiographies, other records, although less widespread, are also being kept as part of the movement to record the lives and experiences of senior citizens. On television - especially on public TV - the personal stories of older people have often formed the core of documentaries about the Holocaust and other historical events.

Oral histories of seniors, taped by university researchers and others, are often used when the subjects are less able to produce written documents of their own. This historical tool is sometimes used in tracing the social history of communities and the transitions that have taken place over the years.

One of the most fascinating and impressive ways of capturing the personal stories of seniors can be found in the sculpture of Douglas Cooper, a professor in the Department of Architecture, College of Fine Arts, at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Mr. Cooper has worked with the elderly to embody their life histories into large urban panoramic murals. In many cases, he has actually incorporated their own drawings.

In one example, he created a 120-foot-long cooperative mural with Vintage, a senior center in Pittsburgh. The mural was exhibited as a work in progress at the Carnegie Museum there in 1992 and again in 1993. The work is now installed at the Heinz Regional History Center in Pittsburgh and is also the subject of a half-hour television documentary, "A Map of Memories," produced by WQED-TV, Pittsburgh, which aired in 1996.

Working with The Center in the Park, a Philadelphia senior center, Cooper completed a 96-foot-long mural - between 1994 and 1995 - for the main lobby of Philadelphia's new downtown Justice Center.

This year he did a 15-by 27-foot mural for the city of Frankfurt am Main, Germany, which is now installed in Frankfurt's central food market, Die Kleinmarkthalle.

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