Bob and Lou Erickson are a couple on the go.
Although they are both in their 80s and have had health problems, that's not enough to keep them housebound.
But they often are going in opposite directions, Lou said. One of the reasons they participate in Express Yourself Through the Arts is it gives them something to do together.
Methodist Hospital started the art program, a series of four classes offered twice a year, as an outlet for cancer patients, said Jeanie Owen, president of Volunteers in Partnership, which coordinates and funds the program.
“Now anyone with a serious illness can participate,” Owen said, adding that the participants don't have to be patients at Methodist and there is no age limit. “Caregivers are welcome, too.”
Lou had survived breast cancer. Bob more recently was seriously ill as he too fought cancer. A friend at a cancer support group urged them to try the Express Yourself Through the Arts sessions.
“He's not so hot on it,” a laughing Lou said of Bob and the idea of taking art classes. “But he really does well.”
The Omaha couple's artworks and those of the other Express Yourself art students are on view this weekend at Joslyn Art Museum, where the group met for workshops once a month from March to June.
How good or bad the artists are isn't the point of the exercises.
“The creative process is what's important,” said Andy Smith, Joslyn's studio programs manager.
“You want them to be challenged, but also to be successful,” Smith said. So he comes up with projects that can be paired with works in Joslyn's visiting or permanent collections and he finds teachers for each monthly session.
Rachel Mindrup, Carey Hernandez, Therese Straseski and Darren Houser were teachers for the latest sessions. Smith keeps a list of artists he can call on to teach the classes, looking for the best depending on the class focus.
Although the program has been offered for more than 15 years, Joslyn only got involved a few years ago, Smith said.
“It made sense to bring the artists here. There's room for them to work.”
He also thinks the people who participate in the classes feel comfortable because they are in a class with others who also have health problems but aren't required to talk about it.
“We don't ask many questions of them,” he said. “And we don't overemphasize the therapy part of it.”
Smith said he hopes the participants take what they learn home with them. Lou and Bob do. They now use a pingpong table in their basement as their art area.
Twenty people participate in each class, Smith said. Participants can take 16 classes over a three-year period, then become “alumni” who are put on a waiting list to take classes that don't already have 20 people signed up.
The recently ended session offered classes in casein painting (using chalk or pastels to draw on fabric soaked in milk), cubism collage using found materials, abstracted still lifes and Chihuly sculptures (molding softened plastic into sculptures that resemble the glass works of Dale Chihuly).
Joslyn gains something in return. Showing the budding artists' work in a Joslyn exhibit helps them create a connection with the museum, Smith said. The participants often come to the museum outside of class time and urge people they know to visit Joslyn or use its resources.
It's also exciting for the participants. Not everyone gets to exhibit art at Joslyn.
“We're so happy to have Joslyn as a partner,” Owen said.
Methodist estimates that more than 400 people have participated over the course of the program and they have ranged in age from teens who come with their parents to senior citizens. Many keep coming back after the first time.
Like the Ericksons, another Omaha couple, Pat and Arlene Houlihan, are repeat participants. They got involved on the suggestion of a therapist after Pat suffered a stroke in 2008.
“We thought it sounded like something he could do,” Arlene, 75, said. She takes part also but says it's her husband who is the artist.
“Since I had to take him, I did the classes too,” she said. “It was fun, something different.”
Pat, 76, still speaks with a brogue from his native Ireland. He denies he has any artistic talent but says he likes painting with acrylics best. “I think I'd like oils, but that's harder to do.”
In addition to the art projects, his wife said, they enjoy the camaraderie.
That is one of the goals, Owen said: “They develop friendships with the people they meet.”
Express Yourself Through the Arts has been successful from the beginning, she said.
“It's a great program. And we keep trying to make it better,” she said. “It's an opportunity to serve the community.”