Thrive 55+

Library art classes bring curious creatives to the drawing board, Laurel and statewide

By Laura Walter
Posted 7/7/24

Sometimes even professional artists are intimidated by a blank page. “When I look at a piece of paper and say, ‘what am I gonna do?’ I just grab a color.”

John Donato …

You must be a member to read this story.

Join our family of readers for as little as $5 per month and support local, unbiased journalism.

Already a member? Log in to continue.   Otherwise, follow the link below to join.

Please log in to continue

Log in
Thrive 55+

Library art classes bring curious creatives to the drawing board, Laurel and statewide


Sometimes even professional artists are intimidated by a blank page. “When I look at a piece of paper and say, ‘what am I gonna do?’ I just grab a color.”

John Donato told this to a dozen adult students on Day One of a Creative Aging art class at Laurel Public Library. Then he called out a color, and they began to scribble on blank sheets of paper.

Across Delaware, adults ages 55+ can attend these eight-week art courses, building creativity and learning skills in a welcoming environment.

Laurel Public Library has hosted three Creative Aging courses, funded by the Delaware Division of the Arts as a part of its Access Creative Aging program. Evening craft programs are already a delightful library experience, but this eight-week course was a real investment.

In Laurel, spring 2024 focused on “Whimsical Masterpieces,” a deep dive with oil pastels (brightly colored drawing sticks), taught by John Donato. Across Delaware, other 2024 classes included pottery, paper quilling and collage.

“I think a few people were intimidated because they didn’t have [prior] experience,” said Kristen Chelmow, Laurel’s adult services librarian. “But looking at the [artwork], you wouldn’t have guessed it. Everyone—from the attendees to the library staff and the public—we were amazed, we never would have guessed that they were beginners.”

Older adults signed up for many reasons: stress relief, to learn something new, to keep their brain active.

When Donna Gordy first heard about the class, she said, “Kristen, I don’t even know what pastels are.” But she’s enjoyed other library classes and Donato’s community art projects. “I knew it was gonna be fun and interesting and kind of high-energy,” Gordy said, “and it’s just a good thing at this stage of our lives to do new things and learn new things. It’s just good for your brain.”

She enjoys art, but both drawing and whimsy were outside her usual approach. Donato filled the room with painted umbrellas and his own drawings of cartoonish fish, goofy cats and surfing cows. “It makes you smile or think,” Gordy mused.

“There was always laughter in the classroom—we always had something to share. One gentleman painted his cat at home—it’s a one-eyed cat, so he drew an eyepatch over it,” Gordy said. That’s the whimsy of it. “When you look at those things, you just giggle.”

Plus, the dozen participants enjoyed each other’s company for two months.

“I would say that I did thrive there. It was something I looked forward to every week, being with everyone else there, and … it’s nice to meet people,” Gordy said. “I think that’s important for everybody … it helps you grow as a person, gives you new perspectives. But especially in the older adults … for people who don’t get out much, it’s a safe atmosphere. Nobody said anything unkind. Everyone there had something that was really, really good, even if you didn’t think you can do it.”

Everyone was encouraged to continue making art at home, even notecards or gifts, “and I can see me doing all of that,” said Gordy.

“I love the fellowship and artistic release,” agreed Mary Soderholm. Her favorite project was a whimsical sunfish. “I actually enjoy getting my hands messy. It felt like I was creating something. It was very tactile because I would use my finger to blend it,” she said. “It was fun to see what other people were doing because everyone had a little take on something different … they enjoyed what they were doing, but they enjoyed sharing it.”

Focusing on the paper in front of you is a way to center yourself. “I could relax, and my mind would clear,” Soderholm said. The hours would fly by. “Just try it!” she encouraged. “You never know if you might like it.”

Donato has been leading community art projects for years across the Delmarva Peninsula.

“A lot of folks run into me and say, ‘I’m not an artist.’ [But] it’s not true!” They just need to get over that hump to find comfort in artistic experimentation. He encouraged them to have fun and never to fear imperfection because that’s the key to finding something new.

Also, art supplies don’t need to be highfalutin and expensive. “All the professional artwork I do, I do with Crayolas.” Sketch on brown paper bags, he said. Use old T-shirts as a blending rag.

Around 2008, Donato left the business world as graphic designer to become a fine artist. Besides his art, he estimates having done nearly 10 Creative Aging classes, mostly in Sussex County.

“It went really well. This was fantastic,” Chelmow said at the end of Day One. “I felt like everyone had a sense of accomplishment.”

Others have noticed what a great program this is—even up to the highest level of state. Each year, the Lt. Governor’s Challenge honors programs that “make healthy choices the easiest choices for their communities” and overall improve Delawareans’ quality of life. In 2024, the Delaware Division of the Arts was recognized for the Creative Aging program, “which seeks to promote artistic expression and social interaction among older adults in Delaware, enhancing mental and physical health through engagement in the arts. In partnership with the Division of Libraries … DDOA is complementing the State’s multipronged strategy to support Delaware’s older adults.”

“We’ve gone beyond just providing books for patrons,” Chelmow said. “We try to provide cultural programing so they have access to concerts and classes that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. The library is a place that’s equitable … they can come to the library and experience that.”

Librarians work to make all events, programs and materials free of charge, which is special for people who can’t afford craft supplies, much less professional instructors.

“As the adult services librarian, I really try to up my game with the type of services that are offered, and I try to offer classes that people might not otherwise be able to attend, and our state has been wonderful in helping provide funding. Our library would not be able to afford a [pro] instructor on our own.”

And the good vibes continue for a long time.

“After the eight sessions, we’ve had so many people make lasting friendships,” she said.

Find the monthly calendar for Delaware libraries online at

Members and subscribers make this story possible.
You can help support non-partisan, community journalism.