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Painting a Picture With Words

In this class, students 55+ create visual images from their memoirs


Part of the Vitality Arts Special Report

Students in the Visual Memoir class at Pillsbury House and Theatre in Minneapolis come prepared with a starting point for the art projects they will be creating: their own words.

The class is part of Pillsbury’s Centerstage creative writing program for participants age 55 and older, which features a series of 8-week memoir classes. When students enroll in the Visual Memoir session, they have already put their stories to paper in previous classes, and now will have the opportunity to “show” the story using a variety of art forms including drawing, painting, papier mâché and collage.

Resident teaching artist Masanari Kawahara leads the class; he is a former company member of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre in Minneapolis, and is a puppeteer, performance artist and playwright.

“This isn’t a traditional art class — they are all exploring the medium they prefer to tell their stories.”

“The task I have is to teach students how they can translate their beautiful writing into other media,” says Kawahara. “They don’t have to have prior exposure to making art. This isn’t a traditional art class — they all are exploring the medium they prefer to visually tell their stories.”

Shared Memory, Shared History

One of the group exercises the class does together, before embarking on their individual projects, is a simple one. On an 8 x 11 sheet of paper, Kawahara draws 16 grids. He then chooses a subject, such as any gender-neutral occupation, and the paper is passed among students who are given a time limit to draw an individual in any profession they choose.

“I ask them to show the essential part of the character or something they’d use, like, for instance, a stethoscope for a doctor. Then, they pass the sheet to the next person,” he explains. “In a short amount of time, they have to focus on the thing or the image that tells the story.”

Some students read their memoirs to the group; Kawahara said one student recently read a piece on the Vietnam War.

“A shared memory, a shared history, often brings them together,” he says, adding that another student wrote of the recent death of her best friend, going on to create a collage that “was pretty powerful.”

Photos From a Class at Pillsbury House

 

Students peruse magazines for visual inspiration. (From left to right) Judy Baldwin, Beverly J. Davis and Kyoko KatayamaCredit: Elle Moulin
Students peruse magazines for visual inspiration. (From left to right) Judy Baldwin, Beverly J. Davis and Kyoko Katayama

 

Teaching artist Masanari Kawahara (standing) leads a discussion on visual imageryCredit: Elle Moulin
Teaching artist Masanari Kawahara (standing) leads a discussion on visual imagery

 

At the beginning of the class, everyone creates self-portraits using the assigned medium of the dayCredit: Elle Moulin
At the beginning of the class, everyone creates self-portraits using the assigned medium of the day

 

Margaret Cogelow works on a self-portrait using a Japanese watercolor setCredit: Elle Moulin
Margaret Cogelow works on a self-portrait using a Japanese watercolor set

 

Beverly J. Davis reads part of her memoir to fellow studentsCredit: Elle Moulin
Beverly J. Davis reads part of her memoir to fellow students

 

Mary Morris shares her visual memoir piece with the classCredit: Elle Moulin
Mary Morris shares her visual memoir piece with the class

Julie Pfitzinger, editor of Next Avenue, wearing a light blue shirt in front of a mauve background.
By Julie Pfitzinger
Julie Pfitzinger is the editor for Next Avenue’s lifestyle coverage across the Living and Technology channels. Her journalism career has included feature writing for the Star-Tribune, as well as several local parenting and lifestyle publications, all in the Twin Cities area. Julie also served as managing editor for nine local community lifestyle magazines. She joined Next Avenue in October 2017. Reach her by email her at [email protected].

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