Art of life

Leila Hicks works on a pottery wheel Tuesday morning in the art department at Missouri Western State University.

Practicality came first.

Leila Hicks majored in French and economics. Bill Andresen received a doctorate and taught biology at Missouri Western State University.

Retirement afforded them the option of a more creative collegiate route. Mr. Andresen, 74, took up woodworking and ceramics. He also took a guitar class. Ms. Hicks, 74, made the rounds through every art class that Missouri Western offered, print making and graphic design. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts.

“When I got the degree, I thought maybe I would do something with it, but it’s more fun taking classes than working,” she says.

Ms. Hicks guesses she’s taken more than 300 hours of continuing education courses at Missouri Western, but long ago she quit keeping track. Mr. Andresen has taken classes for 12 years.

Cost isn’t an issue for them. The Missouri Department of Higher Education offers a college tuition exemption for ages 65 and older, so long as the adults satisfy admission requirements to the university. Missouri Western offers the tuition-free program starting at age 60. Under both the state and Missouri Western’s program, courses cannot be taken for credit, and the students still are required to pay for additional course fees.

This semester, Ms. Hicks and Mr. Andresen are auditing assistant professor David Harris’ ceramics class, a personal favorite of theirs.

Ceramics attracts a lot of non-traditional students, what Missouri Western terms any student who doesn’t come to the university out of high school.

“Maybe it has something to do with the clay being so malleable,” Mr. Harris says. “When you touch it, it responds, and I think people like that.”

Jane Travis, 54, also takes Mr. Harris’ class. Ms. Travis discovered ceramics when she was going through a rough time in her life. Quaker Oats paid for her to do graphic design, but the work didn’t suit her. She tried out ceramics and immediately took to the medium. Centering the clay on the wheel proved to be very relaxing, she says.

On a Tuesday morning, Ms. Travis, Ms. Hicks and Mr. Andresen cluster around the potting wheels while Mr. Harris works with a handful of his younger students at the work tables.

All three wear old jeans and T-shirts because even under semi-expert hands, clay splatters. Mr. Andresen puts on a potter’s apron, a concession he’s only made recently after years of clay-caked clothing.

Ms. Hicks and Ms. Travis have potting wheels at home, but they choose to work on their projects in the classroom. They swap ideas about techniques. Even if they try to imitate one another, Ms. Travis says their works turn out differently.

“Do you ever have to change the opening?” Mr. Andresen asks, as he folds his squat pot back into a mound of clay.

“Only all the time,” Ms. Travis laughs.

She gets up from the wheel and walks over to the drying shelf to demonstrate. She holds up a mug she made and shows him the uneven rim.

Dr. Allison Sauls, the head of the art department, cites sharing of ideas as a big bonus to having an age range in the department. The older students bring in life experience that just-out-of-high-school students don’t have. They’re able to mentor them in a different way than the teachers can, she says.

And even though Mr. Andresen and Ms. Hicks are taking classes that maybe aren’t as practical as their initial studies, there’s still a lot of tangible rewards. Mr. Harris encourages his students to submit works to art competitions. Ms. Hicks is working on a collection of miniature teapots for a contest sponsored by Orton Industrial Pyrometrics. The department also holds art shows where students can price their work and see how much it sells for.

More importantly, there’s the self-satisfaction, the ability to make something you can hold, that’s why both Mr. Andresen and Ms. Hicks say they’ll keep coming to class as long as they’re able.

“People who make things with their hands are the luckiest people in the world. This is one of the most satisfying things you can do,” Ms. Hicks says.

Jennifer Gordon can be reached at Follow her on Twitter: @jjgordon.

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