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Seasons of Growth: Creative Aging on Display at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center

Category: Museums and Aging
A gallery of decorative chairs and wall hangings with a huddle of visitors looking at them
Art Links Sheboygan: Seasons of Growth installation view at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. Photo credit: Courtesy of John Michael Kohler Arts Center

In October 2020, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, opened the gallery exhibition Art Links Sheboygan: Seasons of Growth, the culmination of a new program to promote creative aging. The program, Art Links Sheboygan, is composed of three eight-week workshops for ages fifty-five “and better,” all offered free of charge thanks to the Seeding Vitality Arts grant from Aroha Philanthropies.

In the inaugural 2019-2020 season, the first eight-week session was a mosaic class, followed by stained glass, and finally fiber arts. In these classes, local seniors found themselves taking creative risks, making new friends, and actively participating in their community. As they developed technical skill in their chosen art form, they also crafted the narratives that their final works would convey, some of which were deeply personal.

The stories behind the art were featured in the Seasons of Growth exhibition through video interviews with each participant, as well as through an ebook and physical book featuring their artist statements. While strolling the gallery and admiring chairs, tapestries, and window hangings, visitors could literally see and hear the backstories of the makers, and many of them shared how meaningful it was to get to know the artists behind the works.

Through the following excerpts from the Art Links Sheboygan: Seasons of Growth book, it is easy to understand the need for creative expression at every stage of life; there are notes of discovery and acceptance in all of them. These five selections represent a group of over thirty works of art, all rendered with honesty and ability. The full ebook can be found here.

Fran Wenzel, Something Red at the End, stained glass, lead, and wire

“I knew a few basics and wanted to learn more about stained glass when I heard about this class. What I didn’t know was that this experience would tie my love of glass to the community and history of Sheboygan. It was really enjoyable to work with a great group of people and experienced instructor, and I looked forward to each session. Since then, I’ve continued to create with glass and I use the skills I learned. The piece I created makes me think of the path I needed to take to move to this area nearly seven years ago. A twisty route of life decisions and circumstances led me here, and lots of pieces had to fit into place. I knew I wanted to be near Lake Michigan because it always gives a sense of calm and inspiration. No surprise that one of the first things I did after finally moving here was go to the lakefront to take the long walk to the red lighthouse at the end of the pier.”

A stained glass piece with abstract grid and curved lines

Wendy Schmitz, Going to the Mountains is Going Home, pigment, silk, cotton, and mixed media

“As the sister of two artists, I have previously not felt comfortable or motivated to make art. The storytelling aspect of this project appealed to me. Once I had chosen my theme, I gained confidence and the imperfections simply mirrored the journey I was portraying. As an immigrant, I struggle with the feeling of having one foot in each country, one where I live and one that I love and left. This project allowed me to reflect on my life’s journey, to forgive myself some of the choices, and to celebrate my passion, which is hiking in England. The process reminded me that recognizing the wrong turns and pitfalls makes me proud of the journey.”

A textile piece depicting a mountain range and boot tracks

Michelle Kunes Howland, The Fluidity of Life, pigment, silk, cotton, and mixed media

“I chose the sea turtle as a symbol or creature I identify with and admire. Sea turtles have endured and adapted to changes in their environment for millions of years. This all takes place with grace and beauty as they continue on their journey. Thus the reason I chose the sparkling beads and many colors. They never appear to be in a hurry, just accepting life as it is. Turtles lose pieces of their shell just as we lose parts of our lives. They take a long time to heal and are never the same as indicated by the holes in my turtle’s shell. The main color, green, represents renewal of life.”

A textile rendering of a sea turtle with colorful patches

Ann White, The Enchanted Chair, ceramic, acrylic, wood, and mixed media

“As somewhat of a recluse, the Art Links mosaic project’s first impact on my life was that it got me to leave my home and studio, and to collaborate with other artists working in a medium new to me. The setting was in the woods at the James Tellen house, which opened my eyes even further to artist-built environments. It was not only an educational, but an inspiring experience. Now, no surface in my home is safe from being covered with mosaics!”

A chair covered in mosaic and gems

Marla Payne, A Moment to Rest, ceramic, acrylic, wood, and mixed media

“I am a self-taught artist, and I enjoy living and loving art through every available medium and opportunity. My chair is titled A Moment to Rest, and it is my way of allowing a sneak peek into some of the mental and physical battles that I fight each day. I had been sick my whole life but never knew it… it was just my life and I had no idea it wasn’t normal to feel what I did. Alcohol and drugs were my escape. I am now clean and sober for twenty-nine years, but I still grapple with many hidden illnesses. The Phantom of the Opera had to hide because he knew that his flaws would prevent people from getting to know the real him; he couldn’t let the world get to know him. When I made this chair, it became a way to let inner beauty come out in the art while I hide in a real world of fear and pain. There is a conflict going on in that chair, but the music allows healing to take place. It is a chair that represents change and acceptance. I have learned that we don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are!”

A chair wrapped in a sheet music print with a violin, opera mask, and rose on top


When the exhibition concluded and the artists collected their pieces to bring home, they still buzzed with pride, awe, and gratitude for the experience they had in Art Links Sheboygan many months before.  The thrill of having their story shared with the public emboldened this cohort of creative agers to keep making art, and thus keep telling their stories.

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