Art holds the power to intrigue, to engage, and to move the spirit for those — of any age — who allow it to enter unto their soul. Art has a language all its own that speaks through time to communicate a message that sometimes even the artist never imagined.
Well, that’s one way to put it. Eight-year-old Tyler McDowell is much more plain spoken and knows how to get right to the heart of the matter.
“I like to learn how to do something — and then go home and just do it,” says Tyler, a young artist taking classes for the fun of it at the Blanden Memorial Art Museum in Fort Dodge.
It’s hard to imagine a better reason to study art than that — for the fun of it — and the staff at the Blanden is more than happy to accommodate budding artists of all ages who want to learn a little bit more about art… for any reason at all.
At the Blanden, novices are invited to roll up their sleeves beside seasoned artists in classes and studio sessions designed to serve the needs of all ages and all artistic abilities.
Linda Flaherty joined the Blanden as art educator in 2006. Today she works with both children and adults, helping them learn what the Blanden has to offer and, perhaps even more importantly, helping them discover and then develop their own creative talents.
A native of Dodge Center, Minn., Flaherty earned her undergraduate degree in art from Westmar College in Le Mars, later continuing her education with an art education degree from Iowa State University. She served as an art teacher at the elementary school level before coming to the Blanden a few years ago and still enjoys seeing children learn to appreciate art and test their artistic skills.
“I always enjoyed art myself, and it’s fun to see the younger kids learn to enjoy it, too. It’s fascinating to see how they try different things and then evolve their art from that,” Flaherty says.
She’s a firm believer that children need to be exposed to art at a young age.
“I didn’t have art as a child — they didn’t have it in school then — so I think it’s important that we can do that now,” she adds, especially when she considers how much enjoyment art has contributed to her own life.
While art classes are much more prevalent in school today, Flaherty says she’s glad that the Blanden has a real focus on offering a variety of programming just for kids.
Members of one of her Saturday morning children’s classes just like to have fun.
“I like to make turtles,” says 7-year-old Rylie Gonaczkowski. “We made turtles out of paper one day,” she explains.
While “turtle making” wasn’t on the agenda during a recent Saturday class, Flaherty was leading a lesson in a technique known as watercolor resist, a process where watercolor paint is applied on top of a crayon drawing, allowing the watercolors to settle into the areas where the crayon is absent. The result is a distinct piece of art with colors so vibrant and a blending so soft it’s worthy of Monet.
Five-year-old Ella Chamapgne just knew that she was having a lot of fun.
“I like making mountains,” Ella says as she works with her crayons. “I saw mountains once, but they were more like hills.”
Seven-year-old Elsa Simonson prefers drawing and painting animals over landscapes. While she doesn’t have a pet at home to use as a live model, she would like to have a rabbit — a fact she is all too happy to make known.
To Flaherty, working with the kids may be one of the best parts of her job.
“Kids are less afraid to make a mistake,” she says. “They just keep on trying” until something works, or until they decide to try something else.
The Blanden offers a variety of camps and classes for children throughout the year. Each class is a self-contained lesson, and Flaherty works to make sure that all different age groups have an opportunity. Class size is limited to 10 students, which assures that students have room to work in the lower level art education room.
Madison Garst started taking classes at the Blanden in kindergarten. Now a student at Iowa Central Community College, she enjoys helping out with the children’s classes.
“I like watching the kids learn and express themselves in a great environment,” she says.
While not yet settled on a career path, arts seems likely to continue being a big part of Garst’s life.
“I’ve always like being creative and expressing myself,” she says.
Her specialty is hand-made cards, an interest she shares with her grandmother.
“I just enjoy making things and being creative,” Garst adds.
In recent years, some “kids at heart” have developed their own Open Studio Sessions at the Blanden. Flaherty initiated the sessions after several of her adult students voiced the desire to continue working together, even after their formal classes had ended.
“Some of the classes that we had going for adults during previous years, the people would sometimes express the desire to get together again and just work informally and visit with other artists and like-minded people,” Flaherty says.
To answer the need, she put together a list of people who wanted to get together and started sending out a monthly email inviting them to come in one weekday afternoon a month. She’s never quite sure how many folks may show up from month to month, and that’s part of the fun of it.
Getting feedback on their work and visiting with fellow artists seem to be the most valued aspects of the Open Studio time.
“If someone is working on something, and they’re not sure if the composition is done yet, or sometimes they’ll bring something they have in process and ask for a little input on it. Everyone is working on different things, and I usually have a still life out so they can practice their drawing,” Flaherty explains.
Elsa Vass has been coming to the Open Studio for several years and seems to enjoy the fellowship as much as the art.
“I know nothing about art, but I just keep plugging away,” she says.
Vass, a retired elementary school teacher, took her first class in lifestyle drawing nearly 10 years ago and admits that she was at first intimidated about learning.
I was scared to death at first — I still feel that way, but you’ve got to practice,” Vass explains.
These days, her willingness to try has led her to take a variety of classes at the Blanden.
“I try to do anything; any time they offer a class I take one. I’m not an expert on anything because I go from one thing to another. I go from watercolors, to oils, to pastels, charcoal — I just try to do it all!” she says happily.
Like Vass, MaryLou Jensen is a volunteer at the Blanden and also enjoys taking classes and attending Open Studio. Jensen says her interest in art developed when she was raising her children and started doodling right along with them.
“We never had an art class when I went to school,”
Nowadays, she’s glad that children do have more opportunities for art, and it’s given her a common interest with the next generation.
“My grandchildren like to paint with me,” she says with a smile.
Sharon Balm is yet another Open Studio artist who enjoys taking classes and getting together with other artists.
“I’ve done art all my life, and I had a ceramic shop for 35 years,” she explains.
Even with her years of experience — or perhaps because of it — she still enjoys the give and take with fellow artists that Open Studio provides. And she also enjoys her time at the Blanden.
“The Blanden is a wonderful place to come; there are so many forms of art that you can see here,” she notes.
Deb Wilson-Nerness offers quick agreement about the value of the Blanden. She lived in Chicago for 35 years and volunteered at museums and other art venues there, but none are as special to her as this museum. Growing up in Fort Dodge, the Blanden was her first museum experience, and she still remembers that first visit for sparking a lifelong interest in and appreciation of art.
Kay Baldus is another experienced artist attending Open Studio time. Her association with the Blanden began in the mid 1970s and has taken on many roles, from curator to teaching classes and simply enjoying all that the Blanden has to offer. She’s proof that an artist never stops learning.
“I started coming to the group a couple months ago because I rarely draw anymore, and this just gives me an opportunity to relax, draw, and enjoy each other’s company,” she says
The desire to come together with other artists is something Flaherty understands well.
“As a painter myself, it’s an important part of my life. I have paintings in the works all the time — it’s an ongoing endeavor, and the people who come to this open studio have that same desire,” she explains. “It’s nice to have other adults who are interested in art, because you don’t always have the opportunity to meet with other like-minded, art-minded people,” she says.
Even for those who may shy away from working in art themselves, the Blanden is a place to relax and seep in the atmosphere.
“I would encourage people to come down and take a look at our collection,” Flaherty says. “There are lots of people who have never been here, and who have lived around here for many years. We have things on the wall done by artists whose names would be known anywhere in the world, and people don’t realize what a wonderful collection we have.”
One piece of advice for coming to the Blanden: This isn’t a place to be rushed.
It’s a place to be savored, to be visited leisurely. And it’s a place to come back to again and again, discovering something new and different each time.
And, as one volunteer notes, “Admission is still free!”