Art draws us together


This story starts on a dark and stormy afternoon – and at first I thought it would end with a sinking feeling and a “glug.”

It began as I was backing out of my driveway in Cranston in a torrential downpour. I would brave the rain, I told myself. I would get to Providence, come hell or (literally) high water.

Then it happened: my phone squealed out a message from the National Weather Service: “CodeRED Weather Warning: The NWS has issued a Flash Flood Warning for your location.”

On Reservoir Avenue, the foot-high waters gushed around my wheel wells. Thunder rumbled on the horizon. My wipers squeaked frantically across the windshield. SUVs rumbled out of side streets, raising fins of water.

“There’s no way,” I muttered to myself. “We have to cancel.”

This was the death knell for Community Sketching, a free outdoor art event I had helped organize for July 16. But instead of drawing together in the streets of Providence’s East Side, Community Sketching ended with a dreary phone call to my co-organizer and a last-minute email to the people who had signed up.

All I’d wanted was to spend a summer afternoon drawing some landmarks with new friends. I had even changed the rendezvous point, from outdoors at the Roger Williams Memorial to the indoor lobby of the RISD Museum. But like the saying goes: man makes plans and the National Weather Service laughs.

I couldn’t even reach the on-ramp to I-95, much less drive downtown.

By this point, most would-be participants had already texted me, explaining that they wouldn’t be able to attend.

“Dear Friends,” I tapped into my phone, once I’d found a dry place to park. “I hope you are all safe and dry. It should come as no surprise ….”

Swallowing my disappointment, I added a final note: even if we couldn’t meet in person, folks were welcome to draw whatever was around them on that rainy day. If they sketched something they liked, they could send me a picture.

I logged off, drove home, and made dinner. I thought: I guess that’s the end of that.

But that wasn’t the end.

The next day, I received a message from Renee Lipson, one of the people who had signed up for the Community Sketching event.

“I took your suggestion,” she wrote, “and sketched my new neighbors – exemplary models, never complained about being quiet and still. Thanks for advising me to sketch after the cancellation, as it did spur me on.”

Renee wanted to show me her work. She didn’t want to send an email attachment, but rather to meet in person. And she wouldn’t share just that Sunday sketch, but many drawings and paintings she had composed in the past few months. This is how I recently found myself at Borealis Coffee Company, seated across from Renee and flipping through her sketchbooks.

As I soon learned, Renee Lipson spent “the first 91 years” of her life in Fall River, Massachusetts. Two years ago, the nonagenarian widow purchased a house in Riverside with her son and daughter, who had recently moved back to the area. The trio now shares the two-story residence, a few blocks from where we were sipping coffee.

Renee looks far younger than 93, and she’s sharp. In a shaded corner of the patio, she told me about her life. How her parents immigrated from Russia and Romania. How her late husband, Robert Lipson, used to own a shop in Fall River called Bertha’s Bakery. How, in the 1950s, Renee disapproved of a moody employee at Bertha’s and replaced her as the bakery’s cake decorator – for the next 40 years. How she earned two master’s degrees, including a degree in holistic stress management. How she spent years as a real estate agent. How she had always dabbled in art, drawing and painting and honing her skills.

“I was always taking classes,” she told me with an impish grin.

I was smitten by Renee’s story, and all the more so when I saw her work. Renee had drawn trees and waterfowl, people lounging in chairs and close-ups of her own left hand. She showed me portraits based on photographs, and floral watercolors.

Renee has a natural talent, and she has practiced a range of techniques, from pencil to pigment. Some of her work has already hung in local galleries, and more has already been earmarked for display.

Renee then invited me over to her house, where she showed off her art supplies and a pile of original pieces. She had created so many pictures that she’d struggled to frame them all. On the walls, I admired Renee’s daughter’s choice of artworks, from impressionist canvases to vintage travel posters.

I loved this brief window into Renee’s life – how, in less than two hours, we’d gone from complete strangers to good acquaintances.

As I drove away, I reveled in this unexpected consolation prize. No, the Community Sketching event hadn’t taken place, and for reasons beyond our control. But putting ink on paper had never been as important as meeting like-minded people. Renee had done both. One way or another, art draws us together.

ROBERT ISENBERG ( is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and a writer for Jewish Rhode Island.

Renee Lipson, Community Sketch, art