Meadows Gallery: Room to Grow

96-year-old Florence Thoms carefully sketches a bird in her art pad. The artist is currently displaying her work in the new Meadows Gallery at Sandia Village, where she is also a resident. Photo by Katie Sikora.

In fourth grade Florence Thoms won first prize in a Smoky the Bear poster contest. She has been making art ever since, most recently as a member of the Meadows Artists at Scandia Village. Now in her 96th year she is featured artist in the new Meadows Gallery.

“My favorite is what I did a long time ago,” Thoms said of work in her show, “an old house where people still lived, clothes on the line.” She and her husband, Helmuth, were on a trip through Louisiana, saw the run down house and at first thought it was abandoned.

“My husband took a picture of it,” she continued. When she used the photo for her drawing, she added a tree that grew by the corner of Tyler and Mason (she and Heelmuth were engravers in Green Bay). “I do a lot of copying,” she said, but she manipulates the images. “I can say, that’s my composition!”

Thoms lives in an apartment in the Meadows at Scandia Village, a worktable with lamps by the window in her living room serving as a studio. Every Wednesday for five years she has attended an art class taught by Sister Bay artist Tom Seagard, who along with his artist wife Brigitte Kozma, has owned the Mill Road Gallery and studio for 41 years.

“A friend of my mother,” Seagard said, “asked her to ask me if I’d teach an art class to interested people at Scand.” He said yes, and has found the experience rewarding, the work of his students “incredible” as “they have no fear about trying new things. They don’t check for the deep end of the pool!” They are eager to learn, and during class “I get my batteries charged!”

At first he provided traditional art instruction to the class that averages nine to ten students. “But I stopped being a teacher,” he said. “Now I’m working with them,” a facilitator.

Scandia Village Senior Living Manager Donna Denardo finds his mentoring a unique approach. “People are engaged and have a creative focus in their lives,” she said. “They are very accomplished people. It is inspiring to be with them!”

Tom Seagard meets with artists at Scandia Village every Wednesday. The class meets around a table and discusses topics relevant to their artwork, such as matting and framing. Photo by Katie Sikora.

The class meets around a table in the Gathering Room. Posted on the walls is student work. Some of the members draw and paint during class, but mostly the time is used for peer and teacher critiques of finished pieces, and for Seagard’s discussions on topics relevant to their artwork.

Jo Darkin has attended the class for about a year. “I decided that it would be a good thing personally,” she said, “very calming to sit down and produce something and feel good about” having it put on display. “In class I listen to Tom, and I work in my apartment.”

“We are all free to do our own kind of art,” said Jean Swanson. “He encourages diversity and teaches us techniques; he critiques and encourages.” She little knew where the class would take her when she signed up for it five years ago.

“He cares about us,” she added. “You become like a family. He calls me on Mother’s Day!”

What originally began as a class is now the Meadow Artists group. Seagard saw the Meadows Gallery as a natural outgrowth of the activity. Over the years Scandia Village has assembled a large collection of high quality work, he noted, “that is a very big part of the society there.” Visitors to Scandia Village will find that virtually all of the halls of the facility are lined with artwork, some donated as memorials, some in support of the facility, some created by people who reside there.

Residents have the opportunity to participate in a range of classes and other activities. “This is not a retirement community where people go to die,” Seagard said, “but to grow.”

The Meadows Gallery with its changing shows will be an important part of that activity, Seagard believes. Not only will the space enhance the lives of the artists who live there, but it will involve professional artists in the community in the project as well as the greater community of Northern Door who will be able to view the work.

The Meadows Gallery, still a work in progress, currently showcases a variety of Thoms’ artwork. Tom Seagard envisions the gallery as a space “for artists in the community who have not had a place to show [their work], emerging artist regardless of their chronological age.” Photo by Katie Sikora.

Working with Denardo, Seagard found a hallway near the Meadows dining area that serves as the gallery. “Think of the Link gallery at the Door Community Auditorium,” he said. With improvements in lighting and wall surface, the Meadows Gallery will function similarly.

At this point the gallery is a work in progress. While the art of Florence Thoms is presently on display in the space, the upgrades still remain a goal. Seagard has hopes that a benefactor will support the project by underwriting the expense.

He envisions the gallery as a space “for artists in the community who have not had a place to show” their work, “emerging artist regardless of their chronological age,” as well as resident artists such as Thoms. (Those interested should contact Denardo at Scandia Village to learn about requirements for an exhibition; a committee will jury applicants for a Meadows Gallery show.)

Florence Thoms does representational work, her favorite subjects landscape and wildlife. In the past she has worked with charcoal, pastels, and pencils, but “I never used watercolor until I came here. “I like watercolors, but I like coffee, too,” as a medium. “They say you can’t correct your mistakes [with watercolors] but you can. It blends nicely.”

Several years ago Thoms was encouraged by Austin Fraser to paint bigger pictures, and she did one, a pastel of dogwoods. Before she had finished the piece, someone wanted to buy it.

She asked Fraser what she should charge, and the artist told her $300 – $400. She asked $300 for the pastel but was pleased to receive $400.

“I like the class,” she said. “We listen to Tom, mostly, a nice group, some are really good! Tom will oooh and aaah – it’s really encouraging!”

View the paintings of Florence Thoms at the Meadows Gallery in Scandia Village, located in Sister Bay, through August 15 and watch for future shows. For more information call 920.854.2317.