Diane Denton is a believer in the power of art. She’s seen it change lives with her own eyes. That’s why she’s teaching a unique intergenerational art class at Missouri State University.
Since 2018, Denton has volunteered her time to teach a program she developed. It’s called “Young at Art” and it’s offered under the umbrella of Senior Age in Springfield. Some of the classes have focused on watercolors, while others centered around acrylics or sketching.
“It has been so rewarding,” Denton said. “It’s one of the reasons why I have stayed on as a volunteer and not gotten paid for it, because I’ve seen what it does for people and relationships.”
Those people are considered senior citizens and they come from all levels of artistic experience. It’s a population Denton has felt drawn to help.
“If we know anything about what happens to people once they retire, for many people their world shrinks,” Denton said. “They struggle on many levels. Not all of them do, but many do. I think I started developing that program from a place of ‘OK, this is not going to be an arts and crafts class for seniors where they do simple little crafts. This is going to be a fine art class and it’s going to be about connection. It’s going to be about storytelling and celebrating their voices because we stereotype.’
“Ageism is a real thing in our western culture and for me, it’s about kind of pushing back against the stereotype in some way, but also educating and modeling for a younger generation and celebrating (older) voices.”
Talking about art in a ‘meaningful way’
Denton facilitates the creation of art in her classes, but that’s not all. They also discuss how to hang their work, talk about their work and curate their work.
“We talk about art in a meaningful way, from a place of curiosity and wonder,” she said. “And it’s in those moments that their stories come out. Some of those stories are hard and some of them are hilarious. And we laugh and we do not take ourselves too seriously.”
Her list of successes from her “Young at Art” program is long, but a few cases, in particular, stand out to her. They include a man she described as “an old hippie with long hair.”
“He started coming to my class and he told me, ‘I’m not sure I can use my hands anymore, but I used to play guitar all the time. I can come and sit here, but I’m not sure I can do anything.’”
Denton encouraged him to bring in a project from home. What he brought to the class blew her away.
“He built his own electric guitar and we showed it at our very first exhibit,” she said. “His kids had no idea he could do this. He didn’t think he could do this.
“I had a school board president in Bolivar say to me, ‘I used to go to my mom’s house and she would sit at the kitchen table and do crossword puzzles. Now she has a studio and she’s creating work for us that we will have for a long time to come.’ Those are the stories that keep me doing what I’m doing.”
A collaboration with MSU Gerontology, Art & Design
Now she’s doing it for MSU. Denton, who got a degree in fine art in 2016, said she approached the Gerontology and Art & Design departments last July about the potential of collaborating and providing an opportunity for people to connect.
“But we wanted to do something a little different by bringing in young students at the university, open the door up for them to take this class as well,” Denton said. “And that’s why we created Intergenerational Artistic Expression.
“It’s an opportunity for students who are going to be working in the field of gerontology to experience a connection in a class setting where they create. Art is just a powerful means of expressing our emotions and experiences and it’s an important avenue for relating and community building.”
The class will feature two big collaborations, one on how students survived the pandemic and one on what brings them joy. Denton said she lets students make decisions about the projects they’re going to work on while she gives direction and guidance.
MSU 62 allows seniors to take the class for free
Students ages 62 or older can take the class for free through MSU 62. That program allows eligible students to register for one class per fall and spring semester and have the required student fees waived. An added perk for those in this semester’s pilot class: their supplies are free as well. Denton said she’s unsure if that will happen with future classes.
And she is definitely planning on future classes. Denton was informed that phones rang off the hook in three departments after the class was announced and there is a waiting list for future sessions. She anticipates teaching the class in the summer or fall. Denton said she’s not surprised by the demand because of the need in the community.
“In the first class, I gave them an opportunity to share why they are here and I was just blown away,” she said. “We teared up several times. I had some students come out and say, ‘I just need a place to connect.’ Dr. Lisa Hall (gerontology program coordinator at Missouri State) said to me after the class, ‘You have no idea how many students need a safe place that they can come and process their stress.’
“We do that through art. We talk about it. It’s not about perfectionism. It’s really about having fun and not taking ourselves too seriously.”