For two hours every week, retired transit worker Donald Quigley watches intently as his students meticulously transform slabs of wood into beautiful works of art. There are, it seems, no limits to the students’ creativity: Some will carve three-dimensional pieces. Many of the students enjoy painting their wood. Others inscribe pictures of famous clowns, faces, tropical birds, flowers, or crosses.
The class is made up of a group of woodcarvers who are members of Griot Circle, an organization providing programs and services geared towards LGBTQ seniors of color in New York City. For both the students and teachers, it represents a remarkable outlet and a sense of purpose.
“I enjoy my students, I really do,” Quigley told Gay City News. “This offers an opportunity to get out and socialize and be part of something.”
Paula Johnson, a retired special education teacher, already had an appreciation for art — and several years ago decided to join the woodcarving class. Johnson has been immersed in the artwork ever since, and said some students have even invested in their own woodcarving materials.
“I loved to draw, so the idea of putting artwork on wood made me really interested in trying it out,” Johnson told Gay City News. “It’s very rewarding.”
Multiple students conveyed that their love for woodcarving steadily grew over time — and they maintained an unwavering dedication to their craft even as the tumultuous COVID-19 pandemic forced them to go on a yearlong hiatus.
Another student, Desciana “Ceni” Swinger, said members explored safer ways to stay connected during that time.
“When the pandemic came, it was really an opportunity for us to still be able to get together and be socially distant,” Swinger said.
The students are now back to their usual class, though they are temporarily meeting at Stonewall House, an affordable housing development and dedicated space for LGBTQ seniors in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The actual woodwork itself is just one part of Griot Circle’s comprehensive impact on the students’ lives. Members said they have participated in engaging social activities across the city, such as apple picking, picnics on Governor’s Island, and fishing.
Quigley — who said he was “much in the closet” as a transit worker when he first joined Griot Cirlce in 2001 — takes his work seriously. He has his own carving teacher and said some of the woodcarving work has been submitted at events such as the Queens County Fair. During classes, he watches over his students to make sure they use the right technique and avoid cutting themselves in the process.
Quigley is so dedicated to watching his students succeed that he has placed a limit on class sizes.
“I always said without Griot Circle, I would be lost,” he said. “A lot of my students feel the same way — not only because they’re wood carvers, but Griot Circle offers a lot.”
Beyond the woodwork activity, GRIOT Circle also offers health and wellness activities, mental health services, a peer caregiver program, meals, case management services, and support groups. Members can join programs such as support groups for those over 50 years of age — including the men’s sexual health program, the women’s support group, and a social group for trans and gender non-conforming individuals. Learn more about the organization at griotcircle.org.