We’re excited to continue spotlighting members of our Creative Aging Advisory Committee, a volunteer group of professionals and community members who advocate for the arts, healthcare, and people living with dementia. They bring a wide range of expertise and life experiences into the design and implementation of the museum’s Creative Aging programs.
This post features advisory member Jennifer Kulik, Ph.D, Founder and CEO of SilverKite Community Arts. Jen spoke with Samantha Sanders, Creative Aging Coordinator, on November 6, 2023, about her passion for Creative Aging and her connection with the Frye.
Hi, Jen! With a background in theatre and education, you’ve developed an innovative career path that has spanned nearly three decades of intergenerational work, specifically in the arts. Will you please share how your personal and professional life experiences intersect with your interest in the field of Creative Aging?
I had a close relationship with my paternal grandparents, who were a powerful force in my life. My interest in their stories developed into an interest in how people live their lives. My driving question became, “What's your story?” And what choices and circumstances influenced someone’s life trajectory. You can learn more about this approach from Age Exchange. I see theater as a scientific enterprise. The idea of storytelling invites experimentation as people play a character in a particular situation. As a child, I experienced health challenges which made me look different from everyone else. This resulted in having a rough time socially with my peers. I found solace in the arts, and particularly in theatre. What I discovered when I went off to college was that engaging in the arts helped me find myself again, boost my self-esteem and self-confidence, and forge new friendships outside of school. I firmly believe it saved my life. Based on my personal experience, I started experimenting with how the arts might help others who were experiencing hardship. One of my first projects was co-developing a children’s theatre company at Grinnell College with other theatre majors called “Green Frog.” We offered free theatre workshops for youth and an original company-devised touring production. The impact we made in the community fueled my interest in teaching artistry. I moved to Seattle, and I began working as a professional teaching artist for seven years before pursuing my master’s degree.
While working on my M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Washington, my colleague Rosemary Kuschell and I developed an arts integrated curriculum unit for fourth and fifth graders. Rosemary suggested that we invite community members to share their immigration stories with the students. Many of these community members visiting the classroom were older adults, and I got to witness something truly magical. As a final assessment of the unit, the students and I created a performance called the Immigrant Times. The students suggested that they perform some of the immigration stories they had heard from the community. It was this experience that ignited my interest in intergenerational programming and Creative Aging, and I wanted to learn more. I began my doctoral program in Theatre for Young Audiences at Arizona State University, wanting to explore intergenerational theatre. In 2001 when I started my Ph.D., there wasn’t much academic research in the field of intergenerational programming, although there were some amazing organizations like Roots and Branches theatre company in New York City doing amazing things. I got to spend a summer in London interning with Age Exchange which opened my eyes to the world of arts and dementia care. Many of my family members have had dementia (Lewy Body dementia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s) and the work I got to see and experience there changed my life and my perspective.
You are the founder and CEO of SilverKite Community Arts and have received many awards, including the Generations United Intergenerational Innovation Award in 2019. Please talk about what inspired you to create your organization.
I started SilverKite in 2013 after teaching theatre and ELL at The Northwest School for seven years. I loved working at The Northwest School, and it provided me an opportunity to create and pilot some really fun intergenerational projects with senior living communities in the school’s neighborhood. Right after I left my teaching job I went to Ethiopia to help launch a new high school in Addis Ababa, the Lebawi International Academy, where my niece, Mieraf, is currently a ninth-grade student. While in Ethiopia, I reconnected with a high school friend who was the Chief of Party for the PRIME Project, a USAID-funded and Mercy Corps operated community initiative supporting pastoralist communities in rural Ethiopia. My friend hired me as a nutritional education consultant, providing support for performing arts groups around the country to create performance pieces about the nutritional initiatives highlighted in the project. After the project was completed in 2016, I turned my full-time attention to the development of SilverKite.
Now in its eleventh year, SilverKite has served over 250,000 people—primarily older adults—through our arts engagement programs, intergenerational programs, resources, performances and consulting/training services. We received the Intergenerational Innovation Award from Generations United in 2019 during their biennial conference in Portland. Generations United is an incredible Washington, D.C. based organization that supports kinship care and intergenerational program development. They are a wonderful resource, and receiving the award was a big honor for us.
You’ve been open about dealing with health challenges in your own life. How does this affect how you approach programming for SilverKite and working with folks who are living with their own diagnoses?
Dealing with health challenges is difficult at any age, and they shape who we are and how we interact with the world. Through my own experience I have developed a deep understanding of what it means to be a patient and how sometimes you become the IV change in room 512 instead of the person you are. Engaging in the arts helps us express our true selves, despite our diagnoses, which allows us to be able to communicate in new ways. Our teaching artists are beautiful, caring people who encourage engagement, play, and joy. We meet people where they are and invite them to engage in a way that will make them feel successful and joyful. Making good art is important to us, but the connection to self and to the other participants in a program is at the core of what we do. We are in the business of joy, and we all need a bit of joy, right?
I’m aware that you travel nationally and internationally for conferences, trainings, and programs in your work with SilverKite. Can you share an experience that confirmed the importance of the work you’re doing?
There are so many stories that I can recall, but here’s a more recent one:
I wrote a grant in April 2023 in partnership with the St. Ansgar Community School in St. Ansgar, Iowa where my father went to high school. When we received notice that the grant from the Iowa Arts Council had come through, I travelled to rural Iowa to facilitate an intergenerational arts program. The school hosted a weeklong intergenerational arts program at the school, and both of my parents, now in their late 70s, travelled 2.5 hours to participate in the program. It was so meaningful to me to be able to teach in a school that has been so important to our family, and to share this work with former colleagues of my grandmother, classmates of my father, and my parents. It was meaningful to all of them and helped reconnect members of that rural community back to the school.
As a member of the Frye Art Museum’s Creative Aging Advisory Committee, what drew you to partnering with the Frye?
When I first started SilverKite I quickly learned that the Frye was at the forefront of Creative Aging in the community, and the nation. This is largely due to founder Mary Jane Knecht—her care and thoughtfulness with which the programs were designed and facilitated really resonated with me. She is an inspiration and has made an incredible impact on the memory loss community in the area. I previously attended the annual Creative Aging conference hosted by the museum which was a special experience. When Advisory member Keri Pollock of Aging Wisdom nominated me to join the committee, I jumped at the chance. I love learning about the Frye’s work, and from the other committee members and other people in the community doing this special work. The Frye continues to lead the way in considerations and innovations in the Creative Aging field.
Recently you and another Committee member, Katie Lamar of Aging Wisdom, started a monthly coffee meet-up for Creative Aging professionals in our community. Can you share more about the importance of support in the work we do, which can be emotionally laborious?
This new coffee meeting series was Katie’s idea, and she reached out to me to collaborate, which I was happy to do. I am an advocate for providing opportunities for support and collaboration, as we are stronger together. There are so many incredible things happening in our community and it is wonderful to be able to share our work with each other, share resources, and provide emotional and logistical support.
What does Creative Aging mean to you personally?
Creative Aging is an inspiration for my own aging. We’re all growing older, all the time. I want to continue to live a bright and loving life. This field and work encourage folks to continue to dream and see the world in new ways.
What are you looking forward to in the new year, personally and professionally?
I’m always looking to invent new things and continue to grow as a person and as a professional. What will I learn next year? That’s what’s exciting and mysterious.
This series is facilitated and written by Samantha C. Sanders, Creative Aging Coordinator.
To learn more about Creative Aging, including how to register, visit our programs page.