MEET TEN ARTISTS AND ARTS ACTIVISTS WHO ARE CREATING MINNESOTA’S THRIVING CULTURE.
MEET TEN ARTISTS AND ARTS ACTIVISTS WHO ARE CREATING MINNESOTA’S THRIVING CULTURE.
With an introduction by Sarah Lutman
Creativity is not bound by age.
Artists actively challenge stereotypes that depict a kind of hardening of mind in our senior years. Instead of closing down, artists open up with age, they flower. Their late works are often their deepest and most revered.
The inaugural 50 Over 50 Arts honorees provide inspiring examples. They are singing, writing, painting, taking pictures, and dancing while defying ageist categories and forging unique creative paths. If one thing binds this group of artists and arts activists together, it’s their commitment to the engagement of community in their work. They’re not only creating, they’re helping others join in, inviting us all to experience the liberation that artmaking offers the mind and heart.
Bill Svendsgaard is teaching art to offenders in Minnesota’s highest security prisons after retiring from a career in youth development. Bill Cottman is not only making art but also avidly supporting Juxtaposition Arts, the dynamic Northside arts education hub. Luisa Cabello-Hansel is bringing her creative talents to seniors at the Semilla Center for Healing and the Arts. Ranee Ramaswamy is leading her internationally-lauded dance company, Ragamala, while also teaching people the art of Bharatanatyam. Betsy Bowen is not only writing and illustrating memorable children’s books but also is involved at Cook County Whole Foods Coop and WTIP Radio in Grand Marais. All of the Arts honorees remind us that creative individuals not only work in their studios but also animate our schools, churches, community centers, parks, and neighborhoods. They’re sharing their talents and spreading their enthusiasms. They’re making Minnesota a great place to live.
Art matters, age doesn’t
On the North Shore, 69-year-old Betsy Bowen stands out as even more iconic than her widely recognized woodcuts. That’s because her creativity could fill Lake Superior, and also because of her vocal (and financial) support for the region’s vast array of writers, painters, photographers, performers, and more. She enthusiastically encourages every artist she encounters to “go for it.” In addition to giving birth to her own creative work, Betsy helped establish Good Harbor Hill Players and their ongoing winter and summer solstice pageants, drawing audiences of hundreds to the North House Folk School, in which she is also active. Other involvements over her decades of life in Minnesota include Cook County Whole Foods Coop, Grand Marais Art Colony, and various community projects. And, of course, the conversion of a historic local church into Betsy Bowen Gallery and Studios, with work and display spaces for a variety of local artists that draws art lovers to linger in Grand Marais.
Here’s why. And how.
Exuberant, creative, and determined, 72-year old Bill Cottman turns “retirement” into “refirement.” And that’s a good thing for North Minneapolis, where Bill simultaneously shines light on both life’s beauty and its injustice, always with creativity, poignancy, and grace. Whether hosting Saturday morning’s “Mostly Jazz” on KFAI, exhibiting his photos at K’s Deli, writing poetry at Avenue Eatery, or attending a board meeting at Juxtaposition Arts, Bill represents a force for good. Never afraid to say what he thinks, Bill challenges those around him to be—and do—better, all while asking two simple, yet thought-provoking questions: Why? And How? For answers, you have only to turn to Bill’s writing, photos, and videos.
St. Louis Park
Because prison shouldn’t rob people of their creativity
When Bill Svendsgaard retired from University of Minnesota Extension in 2002, he never imagined himself teaching art in Minnesota’s prisons. Yet that’s exactly what the 77-year-old ball of energy does, often leaving home before sunrise to ensure ample time to pass through the multifaceted security system of his prison workplaces. Once inside, he helps a wide range of individuals—some barely adults, others incarcerated for decades—discover their inner artist. One project involved making greeting cards: male offenders created artwork on the front of the cards and then mailed them to their children. The kids then drew on the back. Even a simple project such as this gives prisoners a much-needed sense of control and a chance to process their emotions while expressing their hopes and dreams.
Laurie Van Wieren
Giving dance a chance
For 30 years, Laurie Van Wieren, 65, has been a creative force with performances of her choreography stretching across the Twin Cities, the nation, and Europe. Her monthly showcase, 9×22 Dance/Lab, represents the preeminent performance platform for local and visiting choreographers. She’s developed work for the Walker Art Center’s Open Field performance, which highlighted 100 local choreographers, and has curated performances for the Southern, Ritz, Bryant Lake Bowl Theaters and SooVAC. A wide range of notable philanthropic organizations have bestowed fellowships on Laurie, including the McKnight Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, the Bush Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation. Her next work is an evening at the Southern Theater this November.
Planting seeds of beauty
Luisa Cabello-Hansel, artistic director of the Semilla Center for Healing and the Arts at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in the Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis, uses art to unite one of the Twin Cities’ most diverse and challenging neighborhoods. Each Wednesday evening, the 63-year-old welcomes people to Semilla Center’s open studio to share conversation, laughter, and sometimes tears as they work together to create art that reflects their greatest hopes and fears. She also sends “art pollinators” out into the neighborhood. Last year alone, they engaged dozens of residents to create four colorful murals that brighten lives and renew spirits. Now Luisa, co-pastor of St. Paul’s, plants the semilla (seeds) of her philosophy by organizing similar teams in other Twin Cities churches.
An active citizenry for dance
Founder and choreographer of Ananya Dance Theatre, a company created for female dancers of color, Ananya Chatterjee, 52, practices her art at the intersections of choreography, pedagogy, and activism. Using the language of contemporary Indian dance, her works express the hidden lives of women on the margins and explore some of our society’s most pressing issues: social justice, resource depletion, and corporate pillaging of indigenous lands. A celebrated dance scholar and University of Minnesota teacher, Ananya’s rallying cry calls us to engage in what she considers, “an active citizenry for dance,” using the art form to communicate the real, often ugly, conditions of our lives; to reimagine—and ideally create—a more equitable, beautiful world.
The write stuff
As a writer, educator, and long-time advocate, Carolyn Holbrook, 71, believes in the healing power of the arts. Long ago she adopted a personal mission to use her writing to build community and equity in the Twin Cities, most notably among historically marginalized communities. Carolyn founded SASE: The Write Place in 1993 to support writers of racial and cultural minorities. She also designed the writers-in-the-schools program for the Givens Foundation for African American Literature. Her passion for providing grassroots accessibility to the literary arts has strengthened and diversified the local literary community, opening doors and providing opportunities to communities historically underserved by the arts. Through her own creative work, Carolyn shows us that we are not alone in our struggles for equity and that by sharing our own stories, we can create real change.
Fashioning an artful life
At 74, Judy Hornbacher exudes more energy than most people half her age. With a background in theater and education, Judy worked for many years as an arts consultant to the Minneapolis Public Schools, then served as associate principal of North High, successfully graduating many in the visual and performing arts. As president of the Friends of the University of Minnesota Libraries, she launched projects to raise funds, increase awareness, and diversify board membership. And she shows no signs of slowing down. In 2015 she launched Judy Hornbacher Designs: Clothing for the Evolved Woman, which offers beautifully-made, customized coats and jackets designed to make women of all ages and stages look and feel great.
Sharing the magic and beauty of dance with all
Although she began dancing at the age of seven, Ranee Ramaswamy didn’t start performing professionally until after moving to Minnesota at the age of 27. She was born in South India, and grew up studying the traditional dance of her culture, but it was not something that she was encouraged to pursue as a career. She is now one of the foremost exponents of the classical south Indian dance form, Bharatanatyam. Ranee has worked tirelessly for the last four decades to find a place for Bharatanatyam in the landscape of American dance, and founded Ragamala Dance Company in 1992. Today, that company stands among our nation’s finest, and Ranee, now 64, still actively performs and tours with Ragamala. The recipient of many awards and honors, Ranee currently serves on the National Council on the Arts, appointed by President Barack Obama.
Preserving and celebrating a culture’s language and life
Sixty-year-old Bee Yang inspires both young and old with the beauty and depth of his Hmong song poetry, expanding the boundaries of poetic understanding and celebrating a language and worldview that is in danger of becoming lost. Through his art, Bee documents the history and reality of Hmong culture, drawing upon his experiences as a young boy in the villages of Laos, a teenager fleeing persecution, a refugee in Thai camps, and an immigrant building a new future in America. At festivals and other public gatherings, Bee gifts his people—and the rest of us—the poet’s perspective on the human heart and reminds us that what really matters is the journey we take to realize our own self-worth.
Indeed, signs that our inner creative life blooms as we age are everywhere around us. To honor these creatives yourself? Pick up a brush or a camera. Put on your dancing shoes. Connect with others who yearn for creativity and expression. And bloom.
This is the fourth of a five-part series celebrating the inaugural 50 Over 50 recognizing Minnesotans over the age of fifty who have made significant contributions and achievements in their communities.
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