Barbara Mishkin looks at the clock in the middle of an interview. It is 3:32 in the afternoon. This is meaningful.
“I’m a numbers person,” she explained. “And I always feel my angels are looking after me. 3:33 is a very special time. I just want you to know that.”
Another number that’s important to Mishkin: 75. She recently reached that milestone, but the 75-year-old who splits her time between an Upper Gwynedd 55-plus community and Florida said that she feels 40. Another twist: Mishkin feels that she started her second life when she turned 50. What’s more, a medium once told Mishkin that she had spent 200 revolutions around the sun as a “line worker for God.”
Perhaps the answer is that Mishkin, who is retired, is ageless; maybe she’s 40, and maybe she’s just passed the two-century mark. It’s not entirely clear. What’s abundantly obvious is that her energy for The Inspiration Project, an artistic undertaking that started as a nice idea and has grown into an in-demand service requiring a team of volunteers, is based on an ageless principle: It feels good to do things for other people.
“Why am I so engrossed in gratitude and inspiring people?” Mishkin asked rhetorically. “Because I’m just doing it for them! And then I, secondarily, get so much.”
With The Inspiration Project, a nonprofit she started in 2016, Mishkin sends her original artwork and reproductions to tired spirits in need of a lift.
Residents at the Abramson Center for Jewish Life and Federation Housing have received Mishkin cards, reproductions of her original paintings and photographs embossed with stirring sentiments (“Life is a New Journey Every Day”; “Positive Mind, Positive Vibes, Positive Life”). So have homeless Philadelphians, children used to going without and others served by Samaritan’s Purse. She’s created artwork for the Special Olympics and Wesley Enhanced Living.
Local nursing homes clamor for Mishkin’s output, which ranges from wallet-sized squares to 8-by-11-inch works ready for a frame. Well over 16,000 frames have been prepared by Mishkin and a rotating volunteer staff of 12. Her painting style and photographic interests have changed and changed again, as her husband, Nelson Mishkin, can attest, but many have the look of outsider art — odd figures and geometric shapes mixed with more traditional brushstrokes; on top of the photographs and more abstract work are words that are just, well, nice to remember some times. Her own inspiration can come from something as simple as a fallen leaf.
Mishkin’s project includes a Facebook page, where her daily musings are shared with hundreds of followers, many of whom actively interact with her. For those who aren’t on Facebook, she’ll send a daily email with the same content. The day before Thanksgiving, she sent an illustrated poem that she’d come across to me individually, and then sent another a few days later.
“I gravitated towards this when I found it because of the dragonfly on the top right, which I usually go to,” she explained. “It is considered my spirit animal inspirationally according to spiritual traditions.”
Mishkin, for her deeply felt connection to art and soul matters, wasn’t particularly invested in either growing up. There was music in her Oxford Circle home, kept by her mother, a homemaker, and her father, a pharmacist, but not the bursts of color that have come to characterize her life. Mishkin recalls a teacher telling her mother than she might consider sending her daughter to art school, but the idea was quashed.
“It wasn’t even thought of,” she said.
Instead, she went into education, studying at Temple University, and spent a long career working with the elderly in various capacities (she put them to work then, too, placing them in volunteer positions). Just about the only constant through that time was her husband, to whom she’s been married for 54 years.
Nelson Mishkin, who is indisputably 77, saw his wife grasping for a creative expression after her retirement, but he said, she’d always found an outlet before, brush in hand or not. Everything from her demeanor to the way she decorated the house was an expression of her creativity.
When she started sketching more and more, graduating to acrylic painting and birdhouse decoration, he knew she’d found something special. A few years ago, as his wife sought to do something more meaningful than painting for herself, Nelson Mishkin knew she’d figure out something.
When his wife turned to him one morning with an epiphany — the one that would become The Inspiration Project — he was hardly surprised.
“She was always looking to help other people, and do things for other people, to bring joy
to them,” Nelson Mishkin said.
Betty Organt, a friend of Barbara Mishkin, has her paintings and photos all over her home. When a friend of Organt’s was feeling down, Organt sent her a Mishkin; Organt’s friend called to let her know that the card was now a daily fixture — a source of uplift propped up on her desk. It was hardly a surprise to Organt, a former teacher who met Mishkin through their active adult community and was drawn into her circle of volunteers.
“Barbara has a big heart,” Organt said. “She’s so welcoming.”
Mishkin is writing a book these days and, whether she’s 75 or not, the only thing that worries her is that she won’t have enough years left to do everything that she wants to do. That 2020 put a pause on her ability to have volunteers in her home can
“But I feel God is always with me,” she said, “and how He started me with this project — I know it sounds crazy, but I never felt that before.” l