Julius A. Karash on Business and the Arts: Adult Art Education Lights a Spark

Jessalyn Mailoa (right) demonstrates making a starter bubble during an adult glassblowing class at the Belger Glass Annex earlier this year. (photo by Jim Barcus)

When Linda Thomssen retired from her Kansas City Symphony violinist chair, she continued her musical career by playing harp for Northland Symphony and Lee’s Summit-based Heritage Philharmonic.

But by 2021 Thomssen was looking for a new artistic outlet, so she signed up for a ceramics class at Belger Crane Yard Studios.

She’s glad she did. “It has been an awesome experience learning how to make pottery and sculptures,” Thomssen said. “I had never done pottery before, just being given a little ball of clay and making it come alive to be something. It’s really exciting.”

Thomssen is emblematic of a generation that pursues learning, creativity and camaraderie through art education. Some want to blaze new trails, some want to continue a lifelong pursuit, and others are looking for something fun to do that they’ve never done before.

Lifelong musician Linda Thomssen is now exploring her talent for ceramics as seen in her “Tire Mug” and “Bowl” (left). (from the artist)

The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies states on its website that older adults “have vital contributions to make to society as creators and community members. Abundant evidence shows that arts participation improves the emotional well-being of older adults, supports good health, strengthens social bonds, and brings a heightened experience of purpose and joy to our lives as we mature.”

Kathleen Leighton, media relations manager of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, said she enjoyed learning how to do something that was brand new to her when she took glassblowing classes at the Belger Glass Annex and pottery classes at Belger Crane Yard Studios.

“I always find it fascinating to do something and realize just how creative and skilled the artists are who actually do this for a living,” Leighton said. “I found the pottery wheel to be almost mesmerizing. It was a great activity because it’s very tactile, but it’s also very zen. And it can be very calming.”

Francesca Manheim, another former Kansas City Symphony violinist, took a watercolor collage class at the Kansas City Art Institute after a friend told her about it.

“It was during the transition when I left the symphony,” she said. “I was exploring several different things. I have done a little bit of watercolor myself, and I wanted to dive into some of my other interests.”

Manheim said her teacher, Sharon Hunter-Putsch, guided and encouraged her. And she enjoyed interacting with other students in the class.

“We looked at each other’s works, and then Sharon would have us put them up on the wall,” she said. “There were a couple of women I could connect with, and we complimented each other. That was fun.”

Manheim is applying her enhanced skills to the creation of an illustrated children’s book of short compositions by her grandfather, the composer and eminent sociologist Ernest Manheim.

Beverly Thomas started taking piano lessons as a child, when she lived on a farm in southwest Missouri. She continued her piano studies at College of the Ozarks. After college, her piano time was limited by the demands of raising two children and holding down a graphic/production designer job at Hallmark.

Now that she’s retired, Thomas has the bandwidth to take piano lessons with Charles Dickinson, an accomplished pianist who teaches adults as well as children in addition to maintaining a busy schedule of performances and accompanist gigs.

“It brings back a part of my life that I enjoyed so much when I was younger,” Thomas said.

Thomas said Dickinson lets her choose any music she wants to learn, and she can study at her own pace. But she said Dickinson holds her accountable, “not only to practice and be ready to show progress, but accountable to the composer’s intentions. He makes sure I get everything correct from a technical standpoint.”

Dickinson said his students include several adults, ranging in age from approximately 40 to 65.

“In some cases they took lessons when they were younger,” he said. “Now maybe they’re nearing retirement or are retired and have time to revisit what they were learning when they were younger. And some of them simply want to keep their minds active. It’s a way of introducing something new into their lives.”

Dickinson said taking piano lessons activates areas of the brain connected with creativity, memory and problem solving.

“As far as results go, nobody taking lessons in their 50s is expecting to become a concert performer, and that’s not really my goal (for them) either,” he said. “But I do see a lot of people making pretty significant progress and, in some cases, being able to play pretty advanced music and gaining a lot of satisfaction from that. It comes down to how much time they put into it and what their goals are.”

Students in an adult class at the Kansas City Ballet School (Brett Pruitt & East Market Studios)

The Kansas City Ballet School offers a variety of classes, including some that are designed for adults. Grace Holmes, Ballet School director, said the school serves nearly 2,000 adult students at various times throughout the year.

“We have a lot of students who have never done ballet before and just think this might be fun to try,” Holmes said. “We typically do two to three introductory workshops during the year. And if they decide they like it and want to continue to learn, they can come once a week or twice a week to our beginning classes.”

The school also offers intermediate classes and advanced classes. “We have live music in our classes, and the teachers are really funny,” Holmes said. “The students get to be in a room full of like-minded people exploring their musicality and an art form, which can be really fun. And they are also having a good workout while they’re doing it.”

The school offers classes at the Todd Bolender Center for Dance & Creativity in downtown Kansas City and at its South Campus in Prairie Village. The Prairie Village facility is undergoing a renovation that will allow the school to expand and offer new programming for older adults.

“We’re going to have a ballet class that is geared toward people who are 60 years-plus,” Holmes said. “They might not do the deep knee bends, they won’t do so much jumping, they probably won’t do as much turning. But they’ll still get to explore the ballet technique and use a lot of grace and mobility.”

Other new offerings at the Prairie Village facility will include a seniors jazz dancing class and a seniors yoga class. Holmes said the school hopes to begin the new programming this summer, depending on how the renovation goes. “If we can’t begin in the summer, we should be able to begin in the fall.”

The Ballet School also plans to reach out and explore what kinds of services it can offer to seniors who live in assisted living centers, Holmes said.

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art announced last November that it had received a grant from the E.A. Michelson Philanthropy as part of its Vitality Arts Project for Art Museums initiative. The goal of the initiative is to launch a new series of art programs for people who are 55 or older.

“Everyone has the ability to make art and be creative,” Anne Manning, Nelson-Atkins deputy director of learning and engagement, said in a release issued by the museum at the time of the announcement. “The Vitality Arts art-making workshops support lifelong learning and multi-generational social connection while improving the overall health and well-being of older adults.”

CategoriesPerforming Visual
Julius Karash

Julius A. Karash is a freelance writer, editor and public relations person. He formerly was a business reporter for the Kansas City Star and executive editor of KC Business magazine. He devours business and economic news, and is keenly interested in the relationship between arts and economic development in the Kansas City area.

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