Libraries Host Arts Workshops for Older Iowans

Judy Franzmeier, left, shows off a landscape she painted at the Palmer Public Library. (Photo: Ramona Miller/Palmer Public Library)

Not long after Walt and Ginger Cornell of Onawa spotted a note about art workshops in their local paper, they found themselves sitting around a table at the nearby Whiting Public Library, making bracelets out of fused-glass beads. They returned a few weeks later to silk-screen designs onto ceramic plates.

Neither Cornell is a trained artist, but they’re retired now, in their 60s, and finally have the time to try it out.

“I wouldn’t have known the first place to start, but the classes are guided,” Ginger Cornell said. “It’s pretty wonderful that the library in Whiting — this tiny little town — can offer something like this.”

Turns out, Whiting is one of 18 tiny little towns across the state that are hosting the Iowa Arts Learning in Libraries Initiative, a new program developed by the Iowa Arts Council and State Library of Iowa. It sends Iowa artists and arts educators to teach free art classes to older Iowans — at least 65 or so — in libraries that serve towns no larger than 2,500.

The program helps clear away the usual barriers that would otherwise discourage some older Iowans to participate — fixed incomes, reluctance to travel, and serious doubts about their artistic skill.

“If you ask a kindergarten class ‘Who’s an artist?’ every hand in the room goes up. But if you talk about art with folks who are 55 years old and older, they start to grumble: ‘I can’t even draw a stick figure,’ ” said Le Mars Arts Council Administrator Judy Marienau, who helps teach the workshops in Whiting.

By fourth grade, she said, most people have already decided they don’t have enough talent to keep making art — for its own sake or as a career.

“Even if people get a ‘real’ job, I wish more people would keep creating,” Marienau said. “Doing stuff with your hands is just like eating right and getting enough exercise. It’s something you should be doing for your overall well-being.”

Instructors from the Le Mars Arts Center lead workshops at the Whiting Public Library. (Photo: Judy Marienau/Le Mars Arts Council)

The idea for the workshops came from Jennie Knoebel, the Iowa Arts Council’s arts learning manager, who developed a similar program while working at an arts commission in Austin, Minn. She deployed teaching artists to five libraries in the surrounding county in 2013, and those partnerships continued even after the initial project ended.

Here in Iowa, Knoebel teamed up with the State Library’s continuing education specialist Alysia Peich, and together they successfully applied for a $25,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services in Washington, D.C.

In their application, they noted that 60 percent of Iowans live in rural communities with fewer than 2,500 residents. The libraries in those small towns — 414 out of 544 statewide — are usually staffed by a single librarian who struggles with dwindling resources, reduced hours and limited staff. It’s often hard to offer programs for children, let alone adults.

When Knoebel and Peich pitched their new idea to librarians, some worried about the turn-out. But so far, many of the workshops have been packed.

“That was a revelation. There really is an audience for this,” Peich said. “And given the state’s aging demographics, it’s becoming increasingly important.”

Meantime, Ginger and Walt Cornell have marked their calendars for the next workshops in Whiting, where they will learn to paint on canvas, assemble mosaic sun-catchers and make postcards using the Zentangle drawing technique.

What’s that?

Ginger Cornell laughed over the phone. “I guess we’ll find out.”

Michael Morain, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs