Outreach: Extending into the Community with Art Experiences

This is a story about the power of art to enhance and sometimes transform lives. It is told through the experiences of three Outreach Artist-Instructors. Each artist works with a different audience served by the
Minnetonka Center for the Arts’ Outreach program.

ruth mason Ruth Mason
Art experiences for adults with disabilities

It’s just before noon and students begin to arrive to the Minnetonka Center for the Arts classroom. Many
have been at their jobs all morning and are looking forward to a break and some creativity to recharge
after work. These adults are attending art classes through eQuality – Pathways to Potential, which helps
individuals with developmental disabilities maximize their potential and actively participate in life’s
opportunities. Artist-Instructor Ruth Mason has been working with adults with disabilities for several years,
providing art classes for our partners eQuality and Choice, Inc.

Inspired by an exhibit of China’s terra cotta warriors, Ruth introduced her class to a series of Asian-
themed projects, starting with Chinese brush painting. “It was fun because it’s very process oriented and
highly stylized. Different brush strokes create different shapes,” says Ruth. “Everyone was able to
participate in this ancient style of art.” The students also created warrior figures, not literally battle related,
but a figure from their personal lives that made them feel safe and protected. It opened a dialogue about
things that made them feel unsafe. “I think a lot of adults with disabilities feel unsafe when they’re not respected,” says Ruth. For example, one man approached Ruth two weeks earlier, saying, “Ruth, when
are we going to make our warrior figures? I’m having some issues in my life and I would really like to get
going on that project.

“I believe this gentleman was very frustrated with someone [at work] and wanted to express ‘I’m trying to
tell you what I need and you’re not listening,’” says Ruth, describing the communicative power of art.
“Often students are eager to give their artwork to a caregiver or parent as a way of saying ‘See how
capable I am’ or returning love they’ve been given.” Making art has its practical side, too, building
essential skills. “You learn how to measure, you learn about proportion, you learn about size and scale
or how to use scissors. And there’s always a little more math than people think,” according to Ruth.

Besides being an accomplished artist with a B.F.A. from Minneapolis College of Art and Design, with
studies in theatre arts, experience in film production and a penchant for large-scale public art, Ruth
brings abundant creativity and intuitive sensitivity to her Outreach work. “I see the person first. We’re all
the same in terms of what we need and want,” says Ruth, adding, “I think it’s easy for some to see adults
with disabilities as childlike, but they have a mature understanding of life.” She helps everyone
participate, even those with significant physical challenges, by breaking each project down to clear
steps. The process of making art and building community is Ruth’s priority. “I always say if one person
isn’t done, then nobody is done. We’re all working together,” she says, adding with a laugh, “and that
goes for clean up, too!”

ruth mason ruth's students


ruth mason Michèle Coppin
Art experiences for seniors with memory loss

During a Presbyterian Homes memory care art class, an elegant and very proper fellow of 97 years was
listening to Artist-Instructor Michèle Coppin talk about France and Henri Matisse and watched as she
showed colorful paintings that she completed for her thesis. All of a sudden he started speaking French!
He was as startled as everyone else, saying, “I didn’t know!” but spent the rest of the session happily
tossing words and phrases back and forth with Michèle. It was gone again by the next class, but that one
moment, triggered by the art, was magical.

“I find the connection between art and memory fascinating,” says Michèle, who received her M.F.A. from
the Pratt Institute in New York. “They tell me they don’t know how to paint, but then they get into it and they
can take off on their own and be extremely creative!” While Michèle loves the artwork her students produce
, she knows that sometimes it’s not the art that is important. “I wish someone would come in and take
photos of them before the class and after, because physically they stand up a little straighter, their cheeks
are rosy, they’re more animated and active,” she says with delight. Her art classes pull seniors
challenged by memory loss out of their isolation. While their hands are busy, they chat, help one another
other and share stories triggered by the sensory stimulation of the art.

Once Michèle introduced mandalas, circular art forms that in Hindu or Buddhist practice are meditative
representations of the universe. She brought some patterns for them to color. It was not successful.
A month later, she introduced music, encouraging the class to relax, enjoy the beautiful rhythms and let
their imaginations go as they painted. One after the other, what did they create? Mandalas! It was the
most natural thing in the world, but had to come from within.

Describing her students as resilient and courageous, Michèle reflects, “It must be scary to not know
where you are most of the time or not recognize the people who are around you. Yet they have humor,
are smiling, friendly and sweet and so full of kindness.” To ensure enjoyment and success with their
projects, Michèle shows them each tiny step, getting to eye level to make it personal and engaging. She
encourages family members to join in to enjoy the connection and memories that come up during class.
It’s also a chance to make some new memories to cherish.

“We’re all headed in that direction of old age,” Michèle reminds us. “It benefits the whole society really to
treat our older people well, with dignity and respect. Programs like these elevate their quality of life.”

ruth mason ruth's students

ruth mason Geneviève Chamberland
Working with underserved children and teens

Happy youngsters bounce into the community room of their apartment building after school. The older
kids aren’t as enthusiastic. As soon as they realize they’re about to be trapped in a small room with 5- and
6-year olds, their “this is going to be lame” attitude becomes palpable. But Artist-Instructor Geneviève Chamberland has brought a secret weapon: clay.

She bides her time as they’re welcomed by a representative from Project for Pride in Living, Inc., a local
nonprofit dedicated to helping Twin Cities low-income residents achieve self sufficiency. “Programs like
ours expose the children to [art] materials they rarely see,” says Geneviève. “I love to bring clay into their
world because it’s something they rarely get to work with. It also makes their project more permanent and
that permanency gives them a source of pride.”

Geneviève teases and cajoles the group a little bit to get them started, sharing a sports sock filled with
corn starch (which keeps clay from sticking to molds). She tells the students it is her son’s dirty, stinky
sock filled with toe dust. A few giggles bubble up. Soon attitudes soften to smiles as the kids start to touch
and form the material. Once they’re into it, you can’t get the clay away from them!

Being a mom and also not from the U.S. (she’s Canadian), Geneviève finds common ground and
connection with her students. They range from ages 5 to 16. Most are refugees from Africa, many from
Somalia. All are struggling financially. “I believe art helps kids realize that despite struggles – at school
, in the community or with their family – they can create something beautiful. Out of the most primal
material – dirt – they create something of value,” says Geneviève, who witnesses this discovery. “There’s
value in their art and that means there is value in them.”

Some of the students can be pretty rowdy, but Geneviève takes it in stride. As she introduces a project,
showing a piece that she has made, she considers the class, sizing up who’s acting out and needs a
little more engagement. They get the biggest jobs. “They feel special being chosen for responsibility and
it gets them more involved in the experience.” She makes sure the children know that the class is a safe
environment where they can relax and create. Geneviève loves her Outreach work because she knows
that when children experience the freedom of creating, they realize that they can become winners despite
present challenges. “Art gives them a little pat on the back that they will remember when it’s a rough road.”

ruth mason geneviéve students

Our Partners make it Possible

Thank you to all of the talented artist-instructors and community partners who make these programs possible.
Outreach is a vital aspect of the work of the Minnetonka Center for the Arts, and one of the most gratifying.
And thank you to the Minnesota State Arts Board (MSAB), which supports our mission. This activity is mad
e possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the MSAB, thanks to a legislative appropriation
from the arts and cultural heritage fund.

The stories above were supported by a $50,000 2011 and $100,000 2012 Arts Access Grant from the
MSAB. Last year, almost 30 exceptional instructors helped reach 1,639 people at little or no cost who otherwise would have minimal access to art.

This work proved foundational, because recently the MSAB awarded a $142,741 2013 Arts Learning
Grant to continue and expand our visual arts programs with these partners so we may continue to reach
adults with special needs, seniors with memory loss and at-risk children and teens. Under the
leadership of Holly Nelson, Adult Program Director, and Nicole Buchholz, Children and Youth Program
Director, programs are underway for 2014.

The best way to reach underserved audiences is to work through the social service organizations that
already serve them. The organizations listed to the right have been exceptional partners, enabling the
Minnetonka Center for the Arts to deliver quality arts programming to individuals who will benefit the most.
Thank you! Many of these partnerships go back 20 years or more! We hope all will continue to flourish
long into the

ruth mason ruth mason

Choice, Inc.
Hammer Residences
Interfaith Outreach & Community Partners
Opportunity Partners
Presbyterian Homes
Project for Pride in Living
St. David’s Center
YWCA Youth Programs

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