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Retirees elevate Wingate art classes with dedication to their craft

by Chuck Gordon

Kurt Vonnegut said that practicing an art “makes your soul grow.” If nothing else, it can at least keep you feeling young.

Just ask Anna Earnhardt. The 71-year-old retired art teacher found a second life as a professional art student nearly two decades ago, spending her retirement years working on project after project in Wingate University classes, with no expectation of obtaining a degree on the other end.

Earnhardt, her longtime classroom peer Beda Trenning-Helms, Helen Griffin, Ruth Rowe and other retirees have for years been taking art classes in as many mediums as the art world provides. Watercolors. Printmaking. Photography. Bookbinding. Mixed media.

Beda Trenning-Helms with a painting of a horse

It has all provided more than a mere diversion. Nearly every semester, they audit classes – which means they get no college credit for taking them – but they do far more than sit in the back of the class and observe. They put their all into each project and set the bar high for the traditional students.

For these lifelong art lovers, the creative juices that flow while they complete their assignments might as well be blood flowing through their veins. Making art is more need than want. “It makes life so much more what it should be,” Earnhardt says.

Earnhardt started her run of Wingate courses with a photography class taught by longtime professor Lex Youngman in 2001, the year she retired after a 30-year career teaching in elementary and middle schools. A year later, Trenning-Helms joined her, and the pair have been art pals ever since, taking at least one class per semester.

This semester, they’re in Art 309, a mixed-media course taught by adjunct instructor Melanie Spinks. Because of Covid-19, Earnhart, Trenning-Helms and Rowe are working separately from their younger peers. They come to the class over an hour early, work on their assignments, clean up and are gone before the traditional students arrive.

“We all wear a mask, we all keep our distance, we keep spaced out,” Trenning-Helms says. “It’s worked out really well.”

It’s important, these nontraditional students say, to meet in person when they can, even during the pandemic. That’s especially true when Spinks gives them tough assignments, such as designing, building and decorating a wooden box containing a hidden compartment. (Earnhardt’s, Spinks says, was “phenomenal.” “It looked like she’d been working with wood all her life.”)

“We usually ask for a challenge, and we usually get it,” Trenning-Helms says. “It’s such a joy. We’re not just going and taking 101s and things like that.”

Community enrichment

For these ladies, the more difficult the class the better. After all, most of them are skilled, experienced artists. The 86-year-old Trenning-Helms has several degrees from Wingate. After her first husband died in the mid-1980s, she decided to go to college, earning an art degree in 1992 and adding a degree in religious studies in 1993. When Wingate began offering a fine-arts degree, Trenning-Helms said, “Why not?”, tacking on a third bachelor’s degree in 1998.

Once she started taking college classes in the late 1980s, Trenning-Helms found it difficult to stay out of the classroom. She took welding classes at a community college so she could produce yard art; learned printmaking in Florence, Italy; and became a certified master gardener.

And for nearly two decades, she and Earnhardt have continued their pursuit of knowledge and excellence by auditing classes at Wingate. “I’ve taken everything they could hatch up over the years,” Trenning-Helms says, noting that she even took ornithology a couple of years ago.

Painting of a tree by Anna Earnhardt

“Beda, she runs circles around me,” says Helen Griffin, who started joining Earnhardt and Trenning-Helms in Wingate art classes three or four years ago. Griffin, 82, is taking this semester off, because of the pandemic. But the avid painter – who, like Trenning-Helms, returned to college late in life, earning an art degree at Wingate in 1994 – is eager to get back in the classroom with her fellow retirees.

“The value I get out of it is being with like-minded people, enjoying things together,” she says. “The other thing would be learning more about what I enjoy in a professional atmosphere. It’s motivational to me to be around people who you can bounce ideas off of.

“I appreciate Wingate allowing senior citizens to audit these courses. It’s a great thing. It’s indicative of the personal attitude that the administration at Wingate takes toward community enrichment.”

The value in allowing these Golden Girls to audit classes is a two-way street. For the most part, they’re accomplished artists, and their work sets a high standard that younger students strive to meet.

“They’re great role models,” Spinks says. “Also, their work is really thoughtful. Whenever they’re in a class, they raise the bar for everybody. They have a way of pulling the best out of people.”

The gift of art

The pandemic threatened to disrupt what has become, to Earnhardt, her “salvation.” But she and Trenning-Helms finished out the spring semester by doing printmaking together (over 6 feet apart) in Trenning-Helms’ workshop, and this semester they’ve worked in the University’s art building outside of normal class hours, to decrease the risk of infection.

Painting of Jesus by Anna Earnhardt

Another medical situation is threatening the group this semester. Earnhardt has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and she recently started chemotherapy. She hopes to continue with Spinks’ class as long as possible.

“We asked her, ‘Do you want to stop the class?’” Spinks says. “She said, ‘No. Art is the only thing that gets my mind off of these problems.’ It shows you what a gift art can be. I believe with all my heart that art is good for people, and I see the benefit here in a real tangible way.”

For an auditing student, Earnhardt has made some serious contributions to Wingate’s art scene over the years. Three years ago she had her own exhibit at the University, and last year she contributed a piece to the “Stations of the Cross” installation in the Dickson-Palmer Building.

All of the retirees auditing classes bring something to the table, whether they get their own show or not.

“They’re so passionate,” Spinks says. “Attitude is so powerful, because it can be caught. It can be contagious in a good way, or it could be like a virus. One person comes in with a bad attitude and it’s a damper. These women come in with such a good attitude, and their passion and their love for art are so evident, that it helps others to love it too.

“They’re maxing out their life, and that’s contagious.”

Learn more about auditing a course at Wingate. Scholarships are available for people age 65 and over.

Oct. 27, 2020