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Jennifer Sierra – Therapeutic Recreation Therapist / Art Teacher, Part of Five Stories to Brighten Our Lives



The Bright Side of Lockdown in Peachtree Corners

We can all relate to the surreal feeling brought on by the coronavirus as we struggled with being caught in this bizarre new world that was difficult to believe yet impossible to ignore. We couldn’t help but feel shocked as it unfolded — it was unprecedented — although there had been a dreadful buzz in the air heading straight for us from miles away.

As our nation is sieged with controversy, climbing death rates, trepidation and uncertainty, I wanted to find some uplifting, local COVID-19 stories that would serve to brighten our spirits. This is part 5 of 5 stories to be posted.

In my quest to find uplifting stories amidst the COVID-19 wreckage of our 2020 dreams and aspirations, Jennifer Sierra was a beacon of light.

Pre-pandemic life for this industrious, Peachtree Corners mom was full. She owns and operates The Grateful Gourd, a company dedicated to providing art programs at assisted living, memory care and long-term care communities across Atlanta.

From Lithia springs to Cumming, Sierra shared her passion of 30 years — entertaining seniors, their caregivers and families with her “watercolor paint party on the go.”

She also led field trips for Gwinnett County Parks and Recreation as a part-time educator at The Environmental Heritage Center. Wednesday nights were dedicated to teaching young children at First Baptist Church Atlanta.

A series of magnets featuring care givers wearing masks designed
by Jennifer Sierra.
The Trifecta

When the pandemic touched our lives in Georgia, retirement communities, schools and churches shut down, leaving Sierra out of three jobs and in the same predicament as parents of school-aged children across the globe, propelled into the daunting new world of distance learning.

“It was really quite abrupt,” she recalled. “I ran my last program on March 10, and shortly thereafter communities started to close their doors. When I showed up for my scheduled art class on the 12th, they said, “Sorry, we can’t let anybody in,”” Sierra recounted.

On Pause

The Grateful Gourd business had been taking off for Sierra before things came to a screeching halt. “I was really kind of devastated. I was anticipating actually adding more communities. I had my calendar set through 2020 as many proactive vendors do,” Sierra said.

She was frustrated and lost because she truly loves working with the seniors and had put a lot of effort into building her company, only for it to be put on “complete pause.”          Understanding the valid reason for this hiccup, Sierra still feels the sadness of uncertainty. “Is this going to be considered a phase 3 reopening? Nobody’s really sure when the communities are going to open up. The only thing I know is that everybody is ready,” Sierra said.

Change with the Times

Rather than dwell upon her own sorrows, Sierra thought of her senior friends. They’d regularly spend two hours together painting, laughing, exchanging stories about current events and memories of days gone by. She longed for them to have a positive experience even as they sheltered in place so they could remember their gatherings and maybe feel hopeful that her classes would soon resume.

“A few weeks in, something clicked inside of me and I decided to take initiative and do what I do in a slightly different way. I’d send my images to all of my staff contacts at these communities so the residents can continue to do what they love, even inside their individual rooms,” Sierra said.

She now creates drawings, specifically to be printed on paper meant for colored pencils, to ease the burden of the clean-up and sanitation necessary when using watercolors.

“At this particular time, I don’t want to give employees working in long-term care communities any more work because they have been working so unbelievably hard. They’ve even had the National Guard going in to clean. If you can imagine, they’re working even harder now,” Sierra said.

Free of charge, just to provide an activity for residents to pass some time and possibly recall the fun moments they’ve shared, Sierra mails her clients copies of her thoughtful drawings designed to conjure happy memories for the seniors who will color them.

“I knew that it would at least provide a smile. Just a smile, it’s something very small that I could contribute to help people feel good for a little while. I know it’s tough for them,” she said.

Leisure Times to Beat the Lockdown Blues

To further entertain her senior pals, Sierra started curating and delivering a monthly pamphlet of activities to help cheer them up as they endure long days of social distancing from friends and family.

The Leisure Times packet includes an image she draws for coloring, a large word search and a complete-the-verse music activity.

“I wanted to incorporate music because it’s so meaningful to people. You can be 80 and have some memory impairments, but some things — like music — stay. It’s such a great tool for those with memory loss because it takes them back to a happy place, maybe to their first kiss,” Sierra said.

The scrambled song lyrics are chosen with her audience in mind: “That’ll be the day … That I die.” “Sweet Mary Lou … I’m so in love with you.” “I found my thrill … On Blueberry Hill.”         “They’ll have a good time, spend some time racking their brains and figuring it out,” she beamed.

Aware that some residents may be slightly confused, wondering why they can’t leave their rooms, Sierra hopes her pamphlet will provide a little distraction. She described how they approached her during her group visits — visibly anticipating some fun.

“We really do have a good time. That’s what I’m trying to create with Leisure Times. I hope it rings a bell for them and elicits that positive response,” Sierra explained.

Meals on Wheels

When closed schools eliminated her job with the Environmental Center, Sierra was transferred and began delivering meals to homebound seniors. “Gwinnett is a huge county and does a tremendous job providing many services. It’s really state-of-the-art,” she said.

From leading students on field trips to helping with food distribution lines, meal packing and delivering meals in a refrigerated truck, Sierra did not miss a beat or an opportunity to be grateful.

“It’s such a blessing. I got this job because of the coronavirus. I’m helping people and they’re helping me. It’s a symbiotic relationship,” she said.

Contact Gwinnett County Senior Services

Anyone 60 or older is considered a senior. If you or someone you know could use help with meals during the pandemic, contact Gwinnett County Senior Services at 678-377-4150.

The Grateful Gourd

If you’d like to book an entertaining and therapeutic art class once the assisted living and memory care communities reopen, contact Jennifer Sierra at thegratefulgourd@gmail.com.

As we fumble through this time of history-in-the-making, sometimes feeling powerless, I hope this feature has inspired you and brightened your day.

“If I can do this, in this teeny-weeny way, anybody can,” Jennifer Sierra said. “We all have certain gifts and you know what? All of the gifts that everybody on this planet has, are essential in some way.”

Patrizia hails from Toronto, Canada where she earned an Honors B.A. in French and Italian studies at York University, and a B.Ed. at the University of Toronto. This trilingual former French teacher has called Georgia home since 1998. She and her family have enjoyed living, working and playing in Peachtree Corners since 2013.

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Around Atlanta

High Museum of Art Commissions New Piazza Installation



So-il art

In July, the High Museum of Art will unveil “Murmuration,” a soaring, stunning installation by the internationally renowned architecture and design firm SO – IL and partners Jing Liu and Florian Idenburg. Presented on The Woodruff Arts Center’s Carroll Slater Sifly Piazza, the installation continues a multiyear initiative to activate the High’s outdoor space with site-specific commissions that engage visitors of all ages.

On view from July 17 through Nov. 29, 2020, “Murmuration” speaks directly to the architecture of the Piazza and more broadly to the city of Atlanta and its relationships with the natural world as viewed through the lens of bird migrations. Featuring a foliage-filled mesh canopy suspended over the Piazza by a steel framework, the installation will envelop guests, evoking tree canopies throughout the city and region. SO – IL was inspired by Atlanta’s reputation as the “city in a forest” and by the High’s proximity to the city’s largest greenspace, Piedmont Park, to guide the design of this installation.

Along with its many trees, the metro area is home to hundreds of bird species. The canopy’s perches will aim to draw birds to the site. Beneath the canopy, guests can use the space as a shaded respite and participate in their own “nesting and perching” by using benches and “pods” suspended from the upper structure. “Murmuration” will serve as a welcoming atmosphere for rest and recreation, as well as a place for families to connect and create memories at the Museum.

“Our guests will enjoy the opportunity to relax and reflect as they lounge underneath the beautiful canopy of ‘Murmuration’,’” said Rand Suffolk, Nancy and Holcombe T. Green, Jr., director of the High. “As with all of our previous Piazza installations, this latest project welcomes visitors of all ages to enjoy some fun, or take a quick break, in our outdoor space before heading into the Museum.”

The installation’s design is Atlanta focused but also explores broader themes related to nature, the environment and human-animal interactions.

“SO – IL’s belief that connecting communities with their physical environment coupled with a thoughtful approach to engaging with the Museum’s architecture, makes Murmuration relevant for our visitors and the community at large,” said Monica Obniski, the High’s curator of decorative arts and design. “It is incumbent on the art museum to create spaces that challenge traditional ideals of where art should be. SO – IL’s socially-driven installation can help generate public discourse about the intersection of architecture and nature, but let’s not stop there.”

The project was originally slated to open in April but was delayed due to COVID-19. To ensure the safety of guests gathering outside under the canopy, the Museum will provide a hand-sanitizing station.

This project builds on the success of the five previous Piazza commissions: Japanese designer Yuri Suzuki’s “Sonic Playground” (2018), Spanish designer Jaime Hayon’s “Merry Go Zoo” (2017) and “Tiovivo” (2016) and 2014–2015’s “Mi Casa, Your Casa” and “Los Trompos” (“The Spinning Tops”) by Mexican designers Héctor Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena.

Source: Press Release by the High Museum of Art

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Arts & Literature

Howell Upchurch – From Filmmaking to Guitar Making, Part of Five Stories to Brighten Our Lives



The Bright Side of Lockdown in Peachtree Corners

We can all relate to the surreal feeling brought on by the coronavirus as we struggled with being caught in this bizarre new world that was difficult to believe yet impossible to ignore. We couldn’t help but feel shocked as it unfolded — it was unprecedented — although there had been a dreadful buzz in the air heading straight for us from miles away.

As our nation is sieged with controversy, climbing death rates, trepidation and uncertainty, I wanted to find some uplifting, local COVID-19 stories that would serve to brighten our spirits. This is part 2 of 5 stories to be posted.

Peachtree Corners resident and Videographer Howell Upchurch has been in the film business since he was 25 years old. His most recent project with the city is a video tribute to commemorate America’s fallen soldiers at the Veterans Monument on Town Center, to be viewed on Memorial Day in lieu of having a ceremony — a coronavirus safety precaution.

As many can relate, when the pandemic struck, his professional projects completely shut down. He knew he’d be inoperative for at least two months and decided he wanted something tangible to show for this time.

Rather than join his acquaintances on Facebook who divided into warring camps, Trump vs. Pelosi, Upchurch turned to a creative outlet to find his way out of the darkness.

Videographer Howell
Upchurch poses with a custom
guitar he built during the Covid-19
Photos courtesy of Howell Upchurch.
It Only Takes One Finger to Play a Guitar

Upchurch took up the guitar two years ago. Though he doesn’t consider himself a gifted guitarist, he enjoys playing the blues. The Allman Brothers and Eric Clapton are among his favorite artists.

“When I met Ric Seymour, former guitar player of Wet Willie, he set me on course to really start taking it seriously,” Upchurch shared. “I enjoy playing along with backing tracks. If there’s a song I like, I turn up the guitar and jam with it. I feel like I’m playing with the Rolling Stones.”

You Can’t Play the Guitar All Day

Upchurch soon decided that building a guitar would be a good break from playing one.

He had gifted a guitar kit to his son which they built together. Woodworking has always been a hobby.

“I’ve built boats, decks, furniture, the chair I’m sitting on, but the guitar was different,” he said. “It’s very fine woodwork. Once you finish building it, it has a real purpose.”

From his basement workshop, Upchurch has constructed both acoustic and electric guitars, with plans to build more and even try his hand at other instruments like the violin. He’s eager to expand his hobby as his growing skills allow.

“I’d like to continue on a much grander scale, make it very à la carte. When I do my next acoustic, I’ll start out at a very non-kit, raw material level,” Upchurch explained.

Guitar Making Made Me a Better Musician

Upchurch described a special bond with an instrument you make yourself: “The instrument becomes an extension of you. It sounds the way it does because you made it that way. You speak through the instrument.

“As I got into building it, I learned how the instrument makes the sounds that it makes, which immediately made me a better guitar player,” he said. Previously, Upchurch would take his guitar to a luthier who would set it up to get the best sound out of the instrument.

“When you start building guitars, you learn how to do all that yourself. After a while your knowledge of music, scales, fretboards all interrelate with intonation and harmonics. That’s what makes a great instrument,” Upchurch explained.

Post-Lockdown PTC More Than Just a Place to Work

 Upchurch would like to see music lessons offered by the city, “Playing music brings people together. The city is considering a Cultural Arts Center to be built behind the Veterans Monument. That would be a good place for lessons,” Upchurch suggested.

He feels guitar building would also bring the community together. “We could start a Guitar Building Clubwhere we can help each other and share ideas. I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned and encourage others to build.”

According to Upchurch, the new Town Center buildings in chrome and glass can be turned into a cultural center with a focus on music. “The city government is focused on technology, business, a Smart City, driverless vehicles and drone delivery. But there should be an equal amount of emphasis placed on developing the cultural aspects of our city,” he said.

Jamming in the Corners

When conditions safely allow for it, Upchurch would like to expand his musical network from virtual jam sessions with friends in Virginia to playing with musicians in town. Evoking the street musicians of New Orleans and Paris, he proposed we encourage local musicians to gather on Town Center to play informally, adding a touch of musical identity and charm typical of iconic cities.

 “We have great bands around here, even high school bands like Norcross and Wesleyan. We should bring them out more to perform before an audience. I’d love to see Peachtree Corners’ cultural and musical development parallel its technology and industry development,” Upchurch said.


As things slowly open up again, Upchurch plans to continue his guitar making hobby. A custom guitar can take one to three months to build. An acoustic guitar takes longer to make than an electric guitar.

Upchurch said he would want to learn about your personality, your musical abilities and preferences before setting out to create an instrument for you. “You’re trying to make something that’s appropriate for the individual. You can actually build a guitar to suit someone’s size and personality,” he explained.

The choice of wood is determined by the genre of music one wishes to play because the type of wood affects the sound. Mahogany for example, produces a higher pitched sound.

To view his custom guitars, find Howell Upchurch on Facebook. Or contact him via email at howell@mindspring.com

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Arts & Literature

Mary Buck-Photographer, Part of Five Stories to Brighten Our Lives



Mary Buck embarked on a Backyard Bird Adventure during Covid-19. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Hinton.)

The Bright Side of Lockdown in Peachtree Corners

We can all relate to the surreal feeling brought on by the coronavirus as we struggled with being caught in this bizarre new world that was difficult to believe yet impossible to ignore. We couldn’t help but feel shocked as it unfolded — it was unprecedented — although there had been a dreadful buzz in the air heading straight for us from miles away.

As our nation is sieged with controversy, climbing death rates, trepidation and uncertainty, I wanted to find some uplifting, local COVID-19 stories that would serve to brighten our spirits. This is part 3 of 5 stories to be posted.

A pre-pandemic day for Photographer Mary Buck would’ve included going to her Duluth studio, Lightscapes Portrait Studio, just outside of Peachtree Corners.

In business since 2001, Buck’s industry has evolved over the years. On the schedule: corporate headshot appointments, personal branding shoots destined for social media, the occasional family or children’s portraits — seemingly becoming a thing of the past — and teaching a macro photography class to teenagers and adults of varying levels.

A Little Birdie Told Me, “Life as We Know it Has Changed!”

In March, I found myself captivated by Buck’s bird photographs. A whole slew of them brightened up my social media feed amidst the gloom and doom of the horrors going on around us. A bit of a bird enthusiast myself, I couldn’t help but notice the delightful subjects of Buck’s Facebook and Instagram posts.

“I was really in shock like everyone else. How could this happen? Where did this come from? There were so many unknowns. I was a little scared in the beginning. Probably because I watched too much news,” Buck admitted. Luckily for us, she also asked herself, ‘How can I make something good of this?’

A Downsize and COVID-19 Induced Refocus

While the compulsion to hide under the sheets, or snack on inordinate amounts of food got the better of most of us, Buck used the time to really take notice of the tiniest creatures in her own backyard — the wild birds.

The move from the suburbs to an intown home gave Buck a more up close and personal view of the wildlife in her yard. Coupled with the new “stay at home” lifestyle to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Buck spent the early days of March decorating her yard with a birdfeeder, a hummingbird feeder and a birdbath.

Goldfinch – A Burst of Sunshine

“I started to sit out on the back patio,” Buck shared. “It was just gorgeous. We had such beautiful spring weather this year. Little by little, I saw birds coming. I could not believe it: cardinals, yellow birds, robins, then birds I had never seen before started showing up. I had never really paid any attention to them.”

Ornithologist Wannabe

Her artistic eye could not ignore this silver lining. As she studied her feathered friends, she became more and more fascinated with them.

Using an app, Buck has been able to identify all but two species and in so doing, learned more about their instincts and behaviors. “I take pictures with my Canon 80D crop sensor camera and the Tamron 18-400mm lens. With the crop sensor, I’m getting a focal point of 640mm; it’s awesome, so sharp,” she said.

Female Cardinal – My Girl.
(Photos courtesy of Mary Buck)

“I quickly grew this vocabulary: There’s a song sparrow. There’s a female cardinal — she’s one of the few female birds who sing. Did you know that? I have a mockingbird nest on my front porch. The mourning doves started to come; just bird after bird.”

Birds on Film

It seems the birds are willing participants in Buck’s new hobby. “I really think the same female cardinal comes by every day. I think she knows me now. She sits not more than 20 feet from me, and she looks at me, making faces — looks at me straight in the eye. She’ll tilt her head. It’s almost like she’s posing for a portrait for me. Chin up, chin down, asymmetrical shoulders, asymmetrical hips, she’s posing for me!”

Buck’s enthusiasm for her chirping models is palpable in both her photographs and her words, “The birdbath is not a myth. They go in there, they dip. I get some great shots when they shake and I capture the water, frozen, using a fast shutter speed.”

Robin_Saturday night bath after a long flight

Undoubtedly hatching up a plan to photograph her front porch babies coming soon, she predicted, “When they come, you’ll know! They built the nest on Mother’s Day. I thought that was a good sign. I check on her constantly. I chase the gardeners away when they come around with their loud equipment. This is a bird sanctuary. I’m taking this very seriously.”

Stop and Hear the Birds

“They’re just birds, but they’re really one of God’s greatest creations,” Buck said. She credits the pandemic with “opening up her eyes.” Rather than getting mired in online disputes, she seized the opportunity to reveal her newfound appreciation for birds. “I wanted to share a learned skill on social media rather than ask, “Did you wear your mask today?” I just didn’t want to go there,” she explained.

It’s about “… putting out something that others could see, expect. Something that would make people feel good,” Buck said. Not surprisingly, people have gravitated to her content. She’s amazed by the response she has received.

What’s a Pandemic Without Zoom?

In response to inquiries, Buck held a little workshop recently on her Backyard Bird Adventures, “… a 15-minute slide show to answer questions and give some ideas on composition.” Watch the YouTube video at youtube.com/watch?v=JiMrjWBm1wM.

To view her work, visit 1-mary-buck.pixels.com. Her bird photos will be available once she has completed her post-process workflow and is satisfied that they reflect her unique style. Buck plans to leave the birds unaltered, making sure they remain the focus, but she may add some watercolor backgrounds, jagged edges and water paint drops, for example. “This project will marry my love of photography, my new love of birds, and my old love of Photoshop,” she said.

A new member, Buck looks forward to excursions with the Audubon Society once meetings are permitted again. Until there’s a return to more normalcy, you’ll find her capturing the personality and vibrant plumage of her garden visitors.

“I get up in the morning and I just can’t wait to go out with my cup of coffee and see the birds. The morning light is really nice because it’s in their face so I can get the little glint in their eye,” Buck said.

At night she goes out with wine, but that’s another story…

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