Giving Back Through Art

Story and Photos By Warren Nast

In this time of different world views, art can bring us together,” says Dee DeLorenzo, vice president of programs for the Penn’s Woods Painters and an accomplished tole painter.

Every third Saturday of the month, the Penn’s Woods Painters gather at Messiah Lifeways community room for instruction in decorative painting and a potluck lunch.  These aspiring artists are the local affiliate for the Society of Decorative Painters, a group that has over 10,000 members across 50 countries around the globe.

“The art part is awesome. Time seems to standstill when you get engrossed in the painting, your other cares disappear,” says a Betty Lou Zimmerman, a twenty-year plus member of  Penns Woods Painters. It’s a wonderful hobby to have for the rest of your life.”

In June, the monthly program was taught by Lois Eckert, a twenty-seven-year charter member who highlighted a Chinoiserie (“shen-waz-a-re”) gold painting. Chinoiserie is decorative art reflecting Chinese qualities or motifs and was popular in Europe in the 18th Century. Eckert instructed the club artists through the steps of applying bronzing powders to acrylic painted surfaces to create a repeating pattern.

“In the morning we had blank canvases and by late afternoon we had finished art to be displayed or sold,” says Eckert. “Penn’s Woods Painters is the place to learn new and old forgotten techniques. It’s a place to develop painting skills and friendships.”

“Every artist thinks they are going to find the perfect paint brush, but one of the things you learn here is there’s no right way to make a fluffy cloud. Some use their fingertips, others paper towels. It is always exciting to see the realization on someone’s face when they didn’t think they could create art, and realize they can make something beautiful,” adds DeLorenzo.

Being a member of Penn’s Woods Painters is not just about receiving art instruction. Members also donate their time and talents through the Memory Box Program. Penns Woods Painters have participated in the program for numerous years. The program was started by Tara Leigh in 1998 and involves giving hand painted boxes to parents who have lost an infant. One day a year the group paints memory boxes as a group.  Throughout the year members paint boxes at their leisure and then donate them to the program for distribution. Once donated, recipients use the boxes to keep mementos of their lost child items such as photos, a baby blanket, clothing, or a birth certificate.

The Penn’s Woods Painters supply memory boxes to Geisinger Holy Spirit, UPMC Pinnacle Harrisburg Hospital and Penn State Children’s Hospital. Carol Henry, co-chair of the Memory Box Program says that it is not just local hospitals that have a need for the hand painted boxes, but sometimes there are shortages of the boxes nationwide.

Last year, members shipped 18 memory boxes to Tennessee and Michigan and delivered 36 boxes to local hospitals. In return, the Volunteer Services at Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo, Michigan wrote: “What a wonderful way to help grieving parents retain mementos of their child. These boxes become a comfort to them all. Thank you so much for the labor of love that went into creating each box.”

The group also has given back to the community by painting nurseries, and a completing mural for Seidle Hospital, now closed.

“Creating anything is like therapy. You put everything else away for the time you are creating. It is a great way to spend the afternoon,” says Eileen Belton, a fifteen-year member.  “We welcome new members – no matter what their skill level. We very much want to keep the art alive,” says Belton

When DeLorenzo was asked to share her best memory of Penn’s Woods Painters she replied, “The fellowship of painting together. Sharing our mistakes and successes and the great belly laughs,” adding, “It also keeps me out of bingo parlors!”

Membership is not required to attend Penn’s Woods Painters meetings. Upcoming programs will feature color theory, landscaping and an instructional visit from national tole painter, Sandy Scales. For more information, visit the group’s website at