By Alicia Doyle

The Writer
Specializing in Good News
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Disposable cameras used in art project

Photo by Karen Quincy Loberg/Ventura County Star: Al Westcott, right, established The Gray Eyes Project. At left are Florence Civita, Maxine Miller, Louise Williams and Terry Thompson at The Gables of Ojai.

Ventura County Star/August 18, 2008

The idea first came to Al Westcott as he was entertaining residents at local assisted-living facilities where he volunteered.

Westcott, 61, of Ojai saw the need for the elderly residents to have some sort of creative outlet. He wanted to give them an arts project.

An avid singer, musician and photographer, Westcott knew the project had to be simple and within their physical abilities. But, whatever it was, he felt certain it needed to be done.

"I have seen that those of us with gray hair have, to some degree, become invisible to society and that senior citizens — and others living in assisted-living facilities — need an outlet for their creativity and need to continue to be an influence on the world," Westcott said.

An avid photographer who got a Kodak Brownie box camera from Santa when he was 10, Westcott said he considers the camera and guitar "my oldest and closest friends."

The camera, he decided, would be a good friend to share.

"Although some assisted-living residents cannot express themselves verbally or through the written word, they can, in many cases, point a camera and press a button," he said.

With that, The Gray Eyes Project was born.

The Gables of Ojai, an assisted and independent living community for seniors, recently launched The Gray Eyes Project, in which residents took photos of the world around them with disposable cameras.

Much of their work is now on display at various sites throughout Ojai, including Coffee Connection, David Whipple Jewelers, The Ojai & Ventura View, Ojai Coffee Roasting Company, Foxy Lady Beauty Salon and Ojai Valley News.

Seeing the need

The project is therapy for the elderly residents, not to mention for Westcott.

"A year or so ago, I had a stroke that left me with the loss of sight in my right eye," Westcott said, "and, as you can imagine, a photographer with only one good eye is a bit limited, and it re-emphasized the wonder of photography."

Westcott provided initial funding for the project and has been joined by The Medicine Shoppe, Linda Jordan Photography and Ken Wise Photography as in-kind project supporters.

The Gables of Ojai gladly offers its residents the opportunity to take part in the program.

"The Gray Eyes Project is a wonderful opportunity for our residents to share their unique perspectives on the world and participate in our lively Ojai community," said Christine Fenn, marketing director at the facility.

The project has had a solid impact because it has introduced a new hobby to seniors and honors their unique perspectives on the world, said Suzanne Collinsworth-Smith of Santa Paula, Gables executive director.

Currently, 10 residents in their 80s and 90s are participating, with more expected to take part in the future.

"Learning a new skill always builds self-esteem; seeing their work as framed art is a new experience for most of the participants, and they are proud of what they have been able to create," Collinsworth-Smith said.

"We are always looking for ways to enrich our residents' lives and ensure the highest quality of life possible for them," she said. "The Gray Eyes Project gets our residents involved in the community around them and encourages the community to take part in their lives."

A chance to succeed

Aging involves a lot of losses, and older adults can become sad or depressed about no longer being able to do things they once did, Collinsworth-Smith said.

"This project offers them a chance to be successful in creating art that can be appreciated by many and gives the artist a sense of personal accomplishment," she said. "Many people are surprised to know that people in their 80s and 90s can be skillful and artistic and are willing and able to enjoy learning something new.

"I never cease to be inspired by our residents who have a zest for life and are willing to give something new a try."

Project participant Maxine Miller, 86, said she enjoyed taking photos of people, trees and flowers.

"I really appreciate being able to just click, click, click all of the beautiful landscaping around The Gables," Miller said.

Westcott is unaware of any other project or program that offers this type of creative outlet specifically for seniors and other residents of assisted-living facilities.

"The Gray Eyes Project is unique in that it provides a much-needed form of expression for those who cannot otherwise express themselves or show the world how they view it," he said.

"I am hopeful that the residents of The Gables, and every other facility that I am able to take the project to, will gain the confidence that they are still contributing to our world and get a degree of self-satisfaction, self-esteem, and personal enjoyment from their photography."

Photo by Karen Quincy Loberg: At The Gables of Ojai, Florence Civita, left, Maxine Miller and Louise Williams sit where some the work of The Gray Eyes Project is on display.

Obit Al Westcott: musician, photographer, volunteer, of Ojai, 61

Al Westcott, a popular Ojai musician and photographer known for his volunteer efforts in senior facilities throughout the area, died Wednesday after performing at a retirement home in Simi Valley. He was 61.

“He was right in the middle of the set when he passed out and was taken to the hospital,” said longtime friend Howard Freiberg of Ojai. “He died of a massive heart attack. He died doing what he loved best — playing music.”

Born in Baltimore, Westcott came from a musical family. His father, Nat Westcott, was a bass player, and his oldest brother, Bruce, a piano player.

His dad took the stage name “Johnny Westcott” and was a respected musician on the East Coast in the post-World War II era, according to Al Westcott’s Web site, at http://www.alwestcott.com.

“There was always music in my house and at the tender age of 10, I started playing the clarinet,” Westcott stated in his online biography. “The clarinet was my introduction to the language and structure of music. I stayed with the clarinet for several years and became proficient enough to receive a couple of citywide school band awards.”

He was 13 in the ’60s, and, he said, “like every other kid in the neighborhood I wanted to play the guitar.”

With no money in his family to buy the instrument, he made one.

“I cut the shape of a guitar out of a piece of plywood, put on six strings made of sewing thread and proceeded to play along with the rock ’n’ roll music coming from the television, radio and anywhere else I could find it.”

In 1972, after high school and five years in the Navy, he went on the road to embark on “a musical journey” that led to the formation of a band called Broken Arrow.

“We toured colleges and played sawdust bars all along the East Coast and throughout the South; we worked with some of the top folk and country performers of the day, including shows with Roy Rogers,” Westcott recalled on his Web site. “Music has always been in my home, my life, my heart, and it has been a passion that has carried me from the worst of times to the best of times.”

In addition to his musical talent, Westcott is remembered for his volunteer work in area retirement homes such as The Gables of Ojai, where he launched The Gray Eyes Project in August. The effort involved residents taking photos of the world around them with disposable cameras, with the best of their work put on display at various Ojai venues.

“Al had a special heart for seniors and did a lot to bring joy through his music and The Gray Eyes Project,” said Suzanne Collinsworth-Smith, executive director at The Gables.

“He would put cameras in the hands of seniors to see their point of view,” added Christine Fenn, marketing director at The Gables. “I want this program to continue as a legacy to Al. Not only did he bring something to the seniors but he got something way more out of it than he ever intended. He saw people in a different light and he came to terms with his own life through the project.”

Geneal Haycock of Ojai, Westcott’s girlfriend of 16 years, said she will remember “the way he reached out and interacted with people. He really cared for people, and he cared for the underdog.”

The Gray Eyes Project received tax-exempt status a few weeks ago; Haycock invited people to make a donation to the project, through Fenn, in Westcott’s memory.

Westcott also was responsible for more than $2.1 million in FCC indecency fines against radio personality Howard Stern and his broadcasters, Freiberg said.

“Years ago, he (Westcott) was loved and hated as being the guy who was trying to get Howard Stern off the radio; he didn’t feel it was appropriate that at 9 a.m. kids could hear the swearing and racism that Howard Stern is known for,” Freiberg said. Above all, “Al was community-minded, had a giving nature and would bring smiles to people’s faces. He was extremely charitable, even down to his dying minute; he was just a great guy and he’ll be greatly missed.”

Westcott is survived by his son, Sean, and two granddaughters, Brianne, 17, and Sydney, 9.

A memorial service for Westcott will take place at The Gables of Ojai. To make a donation to the Gray Eyes Project, or for details about the service, call 646-1446.

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