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Drawing On Experience: The Art Of A Certain Age

It was chosen as one of the best places to retire by

Modern Maturity Magazine named Bloomington one of the 50 Most Alive Places to Live. And countless other publications, from Money Magazine to Golf Digest have added their straws to their pile. Access to health care and golf courses is cited, of course, but one of the things that makes life in retirement rich in the college town is an abundance of artistic opportunities.

Bloomington's Commission on Aging, in tandem with the Center on Aging and Community at Indiana University, is spotlighting the role of the arts in the lives of those of a certain age with this year's inaugural Creative Aging Festival. The festival's offerings include two distinct exhibitions at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Art Center that showcase art by retirees.

Memories In The Making

On the ground floor gallery of the Waldron Arts Center, two brightly painted papier maché elephants serve as totems for a show of art made by people with Alzheimer's Disease. Sponsored by the Alzheimer's Association's program Memories in the Making, the participants attended painting class at the Waldron every Tuesday for ten weeks.

The results on display range from rudimentary renderings of isolated, iconic shapes-cat, flower, house, sun-to sophisticated watercolors that bring to mind Kandinsky or Vlaminck.

Executive Director of the Center for Lifelong Learning at the Ivy Tech Waldron Susie Graham is reminded of her favorite watercolorist, Maurice Prendergast, as she admires one painting on view in the show, by Fred Brandenburger. This artist was once better known as "Mr. B." He taught high school art in Bloomington for many years.

In a poignant twist of fate, the facilitator of the painting classes for the individuals with Alzheimer's was a student of Mr. B's in high school. When Mary Ellen Keen would remind her former teacher about the old days, Graham noted, "sometimes he would be right there with her, and other times it would be more of a struggle."

But in painting, Brandenberger seems to be liberated from that struggle. From his color sense to his vocabulary of mark making, the techniques he honed over a lifetime seem to be largely in tact. "They're very much a part of who he is," Graham affirms.

Finding A Way To Share

In making art, Mr. B. is able to share who he is. But what art therapists have discovered is that painting also serves that function for those who've never tried it before. "The art allows them not to be constrained by that traditional expectation of articulating through speech what they want," Graham explains. "There's no speech here at all - it's all on the canvas or the paper - and what they bring to it is from places we'll never be able to go with them."

But in a larger sense, isn't that the role that art-making can play for any of us? Finding a way to express interior visions and voyages that we cannot express in any other way? While Memories in the Making clearly demonstrates art's therapeutic role for Alzheimer's patients, a display on the Waldron's upper two levels showcases the exhibitors' wealth of experience.

L'Art Du Troisieme Age

The exhibition of work by instructors and participants in Ivy Tech's art classes aged 60 and better has been dubbed L'Art du Troisième Age. The Waldron's loose translation of the French title is "The Art of a Full Life."

Joanna Henegar has drawn and painted since childhood. He studied architecture and worked as the interior designer of Indiana University's Architect's office before studying ceramics at the Waldron with Jamas Brooke. Henegar is showing three pieces of Raku pottery in L'Art du Troisième Age.

"I've always liked the medium to tell me what it is," Henegar reflected, upon showing her pieces. "I had one painting teacher who could start in one corner and knew exactly what was going to go on all over the page. But I never quite know that. I get an idea and somehow or other, something else takes over."

Retired high school art, drama and journalism teacher Skip Hawkins, who is also studying ceramics at the Waldron, reveals a similar passion for the process of making art.

Getting To The Core

"When I work with clay, I can let that be my primary focus in life," Hawkins says. "All other concerns go to rest. I can follow the inclinations that seem to be emanating from the clay. It's a way of centering oneself; it has a lot of personal satisfactions. I don't even have to end up with something!"

After their respective careers in arts-related fields, both Hawkins and Henegar seem to have come to a similar conclusion: that making art allows them to connect with something essential at their core. Even though it's no longer a livelihood, making art is necessary. As Henegar says, "I just think about it as part of my natural self."

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