I love a challenge. And recently, Judy Fenton, director of education at The Art Center in Highland Park, issued an interesting one for Make It Better.
“You would not believe how art makes a real difference in people’s lives,” Fenton gushed over the phone. “Please come next Wednesday morning and I’ll prove it.” Of course, I thought, “We all know art makes a difference, makes life better for the heart and soul of our societies.” But what she was talking about was something completely different. Something lifetransforming for scores of people.
We started with The Art Center mosaic class. “We call it ‘Smash and Create Therapy,’” quipped Fenton. “It’s less expensive and so much more rewarding than traditional psychotherapy.”
Sheryl Kolinsky, a retail jewelry saleswoman from Riverwoods, loves to socialize while she engages in the absurd: gluing many colored, halfinch pieces of broken china onto a piece of wood vaguely shaped to resemble a human torso. “But I also love that it also forces me to sit and not think about 40,000 other things — just creating this.”
Diane Khan, in a ribbed muscle shirt, focuses on color, cutting and fitting. “It’s like working a puzzle while surrounded by great friends,” she says, grinning as she displays the Gothic Revival mirror on which she works. “My husband and I are building a new house in Deerfield. I imagine building it around this mirror. I also plan to make the mosaic backsplash in the kitchen.”
I’m impressed. “It’s not a prerequisite to have OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder),” teacher Bernadette Elenteny deadpans. “But we all do seem to have a touch of it.”
So that’s 1) therapy, 2) puzzle solving, 3) creating beautiful objects from broken pieces, 4) friendship (two other students just arranged a shopping date the next day), and 5) a customized home inspired by this one small class. All for only $221 for 12 weeks. What more could one class do to make any person’s life better?
“Well, this hobby turned into a full-time job that I LOVE,” volunteers strawberry blond Karen Weiss. “I’ve been in this class for four years. Nine months ago, around the holidays, I started selling belt buckles in local stores. Now I have a rep and am in six other states and New York City.”
With her classmates’ encouragement, Weiss pulls out the catalog for her Northfield-based business. She offers 63 buckle designs (made from hand-cut glass, Italian glass beads and precious stones) that use interchangeable straps.
Fenton’s straight brunette-and-blond bangs precisely frame and emphasize her large, round, brown eyes. Those eyes flash frequently during our tour and discussion; Fenton passionately describes or demonstrates dozens of other Art Center experiences, in addition to the mosaic class, that substantially improve life for others.
Chad Chovanek, a student at Yale University, needed a gap year — a year off. Through the Illinois Arts Council Youth Intern Program, he worked at the Center and discovered his passion for architecture. He returned to Yale (with great enthusiasm) to major in it. Holly Stein bartered with The Art Center to exchange her advertising graphics work for a beginning jewelry class. Success in five major shows later, she teaches at the Center and sells her jewelry in many stores.
Jewelry teacher Amy Butts is proud that she sells her work in stores like Winnetka’s Material Possessions and B. Dragonfly in Lake Forest. But she is equally passionate about a bilingual class she teaches for female Hispanic immigrants. They discuss and celebrate their cultural differences while they learn to make jewelry so beautiful it routinely sells at art fairs. This program’s success led to the start of a similar class in quilting.
“It makes me feel terrific to know we have had an impact on so many lives,” says Fenton. “More and more parents tell us that their kids don’t ‘fit in’ at school, and we help them develop self-esteem.”
Fenton quickly lists more examples that illustrate the healing power of art. “We created a class for a girl with a brain tumor. Women with arthritis and an older man with Alzheimer’s claim their classes here are their reason to get up in the morning, as does Margaret Frank, a Lake Forest College professor fighting breast cancer.”
Pediatrician Roda K. Patel, M. D. , mother of three and grandmother of seven, tells a particularly powerful story of art’s impact on her life.
In 1977 she was affplicted with breast cancer, which spread to her glands. Her children found a teacher, Joe Steiner, who came to their home and taught Patel to paint during two years of chemo.
“This empowered and healed me,” she declares. “I would get my chemo on Mondays, which my husband administered to me, and be so down. Then in the evening Joe would come. I would start painting and think, ‘OK … I can do this.”
Patel retired from private practice and her posi- tion as Chief of Ambulatory Pediatrics at Lutheran General Hospital to help found Grain Seva in 1995. Gram Seva means “public service” in Indian and provides medical help to the desti- tute in India’s South Gujarat region. She explains, “I always wanted to do something for poor chil- dren. Because we are so blessed by our circum- stances here, I can do this now”
That first year Gram Seva treated 50 kids in two villages. This year it’s 3,500 children in 100 villages (still only 13 percent of the child population).
“We provide education and treatment, mainly for malnutrition:’ Patel says. “To see these chil- dren who are so malnourished that they crawl into a fetal position and don’t want to have any- thing to do with the world … but after only 24 hours you see a smile and a glint in their eye. I am so blessed by this work.”
Patel now uses her art to help heal “her kids,” too. When she isn’t in India, she is painting chil- dren in oils, acrylics and watercolors at The Art Center. She sells these paintings to help raise funds for and awareness of the Gram Seva Foundation.
In only 90 minutes, Fenton fullfilled her promise and proved that art does Make It Better for many.
Our North Shore community offers many other resources to learn about and create art. If you know of one, or if you have another story about the power of art to Make It Better, please e- mail it to to us for our developing online forum and directory. This will be a tremendous help in the design and development of what we hope will be a valuable resource for our community. Please send it to [email protected]