96-Year-Old Art Competition Winner Proves You Are Never Too Old to Learn

Ellie Donahue, 96, started painting six years ago, winning an art competition in the process and proving you are never too old to learn new skills.

Ellie Donahue shows her winning artwork which graces the cover of the annual State of Seniors Housing Report.


Winning Artist Proves You Are Never Too Old to Learn New Skills

By Kathy Feist

Ellie Donahue flips through photos on her cell phone in search of her prize-winning painting.

She has taken photos of each of her pieces of art since she began painting. They proudly sit in her phone like photos of children: Landscapes. Cats. Barns. Birds.

Finally she finds it. A moody piece that is both uplifting and sad. A tree stretches over a dark hill, half of its branches are filled with leaves, half are not.

It was chosen in a national contest for the cover of the 2015 State of Seniors Housing Report issued in November by the American Seniors Housing Association.

Hundreds of senior citizens competed. Some had been painting most of their lives. Other were amateurs.

Donahue began painting six years ago. She is 96 years old.  She is a prime example of age not being an issue.

No Time for Design

“Golly! I started off just taking a couple of courses to do still life,” she says.

Donahue began taking painting lessons soon after she moved into Villa Ventura retirement center, 12100 Wornall Rd. Five other residents joined her.

Donohue is not sure where her painting talent came from. Perhaps from paint by number sets as a child, making paper doll clothes or even embroidery later in life.

Regardless, “I always had an urge to design,” she recalls. “But the war took up my time.”

World War II

During World War II, Donahue answered a government-issued invitation to work in Washington, D.C. where there was a shortage of employees due to the war. She was placed in a pool of workers who filled whatever job was available. The pay was $35 a week, an increase from the $10 a week she received at her job in Kansas City at an insurance firm.

Her only other sibling, John F. Donahue, Jr., was shot down over the English Channel during a bombing mission. He was 19 years old. Her ailing mother never fully recovered. Ellie was left to take care of her father for the rest of his life.

After the war, Donahue chose the life of a career woman. She worked in administration for different government agencies including Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base,  the Kansas City Records Center, and the Defense Personnel Support Center and the Environmental Protection Agency. She retired in 1979, after a 40-year career span.

“During all that time, I had done no painting,” she says. She did find time to travel extensively with her sorority sisters while taking care of her aging father. She moved to the Red Bridge area and became a landlord. Finally, weary of tenants and upkeep, she moved to Villa Ventura, 12100 Wornall, one of the first to do so.

The Starting Six

She and five others signed up for an art class offered by Wanda Cooley. “It was something to do besides bingo,” she says.

Twice a month, Cooley meets with the fledging artists to critique and offer suggestions.  She encouraged the group of elderly artists, now half its original size, to enter the contest. In November, Donahue was surprised when the winner was announced at a dinner in her honor at Villa Ventura.

A Life Saving Skill

Donahue is proud of all of her paintings. Some are framed. Some are gently stored in her closet. Some, half done, sit out on her dining room buffet for her to ponder.

Recently, Donahue was taken to the emergency room with pneumonia. She was unsure of her outcome.

“All the time I was in ER I would think ‘I would like to finish that picture,’” she says.

Today, Donahue is back in her apartment finishing her painting while dreaming up new ones.


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