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Program through Hope House, Bemidji Public Library showcases talents

Robyn Wold, left, Hope House program director, listens to Lori Sorsoleil read parts from her story in the book “Leaves of the Writer: Dreams and Visions.” Clients at the Hope House produced a series of watercolor paintings, combined them with creative writings and produced the book. Twenty-four watercolors, many of which are in the book, are on display at the Bemidji Public Library. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — Helping someone to find their voice is the mark of the great teacher.

And two great teachers are working in anonymity in spaces and rooms throughout this community. They are writer-in-residence Cynthia Ekren and painter-in -residence Judith Selby, both mentoring at Hope House.

The fruits of their labor at Hope House can be seen through May in an installation at the Bemidji Public Library. "Leaves of the Writer —dreams and visions" is a compilation of paintings and writings done in parallel classes with users of Hope House this past year.

"We have a number of people who are interested in painting and writing," said Robyn Wold, executive director of Hope House, a local non-profit that serves people with chronic mental illness.

"Several years ago, when the Legacy funds were in place, we applied for a grant from Region 2 Arts Council. Our facility was closed for awhile due to state budget cuts, and when we got things going again, I asked our consumers how we could best assist them," Wold said. "They remembered back to the creative writing and painting classes and asked if we could do that again."

Drop-in hours for members of Hope House are from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Workshops are hosted daily from 1 - 3:30 p.m. for about 145 people each year who work on crafts, play games and enjoy social activities. Daily living workshops are offered, as well, with instruction on cooking and other daily activities.

For the arts grant, officials wanted to expand and strengthen creative skills, including writing and painting. This year, they wanted to do a book that included paintings, as last year’s focused on creative writing. And by working with the Bemidji Public Library, organizers achieved another goal of positive interaction with the public.

"There is something about the look on a writer’s face when they find something in their writing that they did not even know was there," said Ekren, a published author. "That’s when good writing comes out, it’s not really intentional and the other half is when the reader recognizes and is moved by it. The stuff they were writing was archetypal; we didn’t focus on grammar or spelling; just the essence of the story or poem."

Ekren said she was "blown away" by the courage of the people to tell their stories. Others diagnosed with mental illness could read the stories and not feel so alone, she said. Because of privacy issues, Ekren was not told of participants’ diagnosis, so she related to them just as she would with other students, she said.

"The catharsis came through in writing fantasy or fairy tales as one woman did," Ekren said. "I gave them writing prompts at the beginning of each session and they took off. One woman took the prompt of ‘what name would you give yourself and why’ and wrote of dragon and Wolfton, characters she started last year."

A journey

Local painter Judith Selby said art does not recognize disabilities and her students enjoyed the process, the journeys they took together. She just finished up her third year teaching painting at Hope House.

"I really enjoy the participants, they are all adults with issues, but art does not notice that," said Selby. "Finding a mode to express yourself is something you can do through art. The students are interested in learning watercolor, and I love teaching. My hope for next year is that we can paint the stories written by the creative writing people."

The class started with painting greeting cards (all occasion and Christmas), then worked on flowers, animals and buildings. This year, they worked on fantasy and the journey of their lives. The fledging artists were able to discover shapes in their paintings and expand the shapes into designs. Some of them have become accomplished artists using different watercolor techniques such as glazing, creativity, movement, Selby said.

"A lot of what I like to teach is the journey of the process," said Selby. "It’s not so much the finished project. We can have an art show at the end, but the experience of working in the medium is soothing to the soul. Next year, we are hoping that they will be able to paint their feelings."

The books from Hope House are on sale now for $20 each at Book World, Kat’s Book Nook, Sanford Bemidji gift shop, the library and at Hope House. Members of the Jackpine Writers Guild, Tarah Wolff and Sharon Harris, edited the book and designed the layout.