Iowa, proud of its arts and humanities network for seniors

Iowa, proud of its arts and humanities network for seniors

Katie Gibson

A series of arts and humanities projects have stimulated curiosity and creativity among older residents of Iowa and helped them to bring to life the history and traditions of the state.

Two years ago, the Iowa Arts Council, working with the Iowa Humanities Board and Iowa Commission on Aging, initiated the Arts/Humanities/Aging program, funded by a $10,000 National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant.

With the one-year grant, the three agencies developed a statewide talent bank of artists and humanities scholars, produced a special awards ceremony to honor creative older Iowans, and initiated arts and humanities projects for the elderly in five rural towns.

When the grant was awarded, one reviewer for the National Endowment commented: “Iowa was chosen because it already had a solid track record of working for and embracing older citizens in arts activities.”

In 1975, the Iowa Arts Council had established “Living Arts” pilot projects for older citizens in three towns, with sessions offered in music, creative writing and painting. Later known as “Arts for Older Americans,” the program was expanded and over a 5-year period reached over 3500 participants in 180 programs that involved a dozen art forms, including poetry, theater, dance and pottery making.

The more recent Arts/Humanities/Aging program, funded by the National Endowment, began in 1982 with a conference for a group of 80 fessionals from the arts, the humanities, and the field of aging. At the conference, the keynote speaker stressed the value of experience, one of the real positives of old age. “Experience is oncontrovertibly the one good thing old people have more of than young people,c the speaker said. “In some ways the great ideas of the humanities, religion, humanistic psychology and literature can best be comprehended by persons who bring a lifetime of personal experience to their studies.”

Conference activities included planning sessions, films, brainstorming ideas for a talent bank, an inventory of resources and current programs, and developing criteria for the planned pilot projects.

Ron Beane of the Iowa Commission on Aging considered the conference important because it expanded people’s expectations of senior citizens. “We have had in the past almost a condescending attitude toward seniors, giving them little craftsy projects to do, whereas we need to get them to respond to serious art,” said Beane.

The most formal and festive of the Arts/Humanities/Aging program activities was an awards ceremony held at the State Capitol in Des Moines to honor older Iowans who were making outstanding contributions to the cultural and intellectual life of their communities and nation. After considering over 100 nominations from all parts of the state, “Outstanding Service Awards” in the arts, the humanities, and a category called “patron-advocacy” were presented by the Governor to nine older Iowans. Recipients included a printmaker, theatre director, poet, musical conductor, Catholic bishop, arts advocate, museum volunteer, and community activist.

The museum volunteer, Stella Kirby, who had been instrumental in starting the Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, said, “They called us the ‘fabulous nine.’ After you get to be an old white-haired gal, it’s an honor to know your efforts are appreciated, and it was only for things I love to do.”

The third major part of the new arts and humanities program was the designation of grant monies to five pilot projects in Iowa which would focus on the elderly but include intergenerational activities.

Iowa’s seven Amana villages provided ideal sites for one project that focused on culture and heritage. The Amana villages were settled in 1854 by a religious group that emigrated from Southern Germany and the Alsace-Lorraine to form a communal society, which existed until 1932. Activities in the Amana villages included sharing skills within the school curriculum, such as special Amana techniques for Easter egg dying and May basket weaving; a series of lectures on Amana church history and village architecture; and visits by residents of other ethnic villages, including a Czech and a Mennonite community.

One school session focused on the Amana woolen industry and allowed the children to become acquainted with a real baby lamb. Another class discussed World War II with a resident who recalled the period when Amana residents were conscientious objectors and refused to bear arms because of religious beliefs.

“Oma’s” and “Opa’s” (grandma’s and grandpa’s) also came to the school to talk about their days of growing up in the Amanas. One program coordinator commented: “The Opa’s and Oma’s who visited were initially afraid to come to school, saying that they had an accent or perhaps would say the wrong thing. However, I never had one person who wasn’t willing to stay longer, answer more questions, and come back. Best of all, a love and concern was established between the seniors and the juniors, enabling them to know one another better, to talk to each other in the store . . . Frankly, this grant has made us realize how little we knew about each other’s interests, family, and heritage.”

Retired railroad men in the rural town of Creston took advantage of their history to produce a project called “Yes, I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” High school English teacher Lana Hicks interviewed 17 railroad men to collect oral histories and used the material to write a play, with the help of three community theater members and two high school students. The play was presented at the Old Depot in Creston to an appreciative audience that included many older town residents.

Retired train conductor Robert Potts (“Curly”) said, “One thing I recalled to Lana Hicks was the wrecks we had on the Illinois Central, and she included that in the production. One was a head-on collision between Ft. Doge and Waterloo and the other one happened at Woodbine.”

The production was videotaped, and the video, along with tapes of the initial interviews with the railroaders, are on file at the country Historical Society.

Another pilot project in Sioux Center was titled “A Glimpse Into the Past: Stories from Senior Storytellers.” The project grew out of an earlier writing workshop for senior citizens, taught by a college English professor, which he called “Stories Too Good To Lose.” Three women from the original writing workshop were chosen to read their stories in five Jowa towns, delighting audiences of up to 100 people, who often gathered around after each session to recall their own past experiences.

In a 100-page story read in sections, 76-year-old Nancy Blum recalled coming to the United States in a boat from Holland as a childand her early experiences in the United States. Although she had no formal education and spoke with an accent, Mrs. Blum’s humor captivated her listeners. She said she began writing her history just for her family, and the story grew and grew.

The grant from the National Endowment for the Arts enabled Iowa to develop a network of professionals, agencies and communities excited about sharing a love of the arts and humanities with the elderly. Because of the program, more of Iowa’s professionals have become aware of the potential of the elderly to enrich their own lives and the culture and history of the state.”

For information, contact: Katie Gibson, Iowa Arts Council, State Capitol Complex, Des Moines, Iowa 50319. Tel. (515) 281-4451.

COPYRIGHT 1984 U.S. Government Printing Office

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