Learning to paint never gets old; seniors get creative in free-time pursuits

People in the autumn of their lives are discovering artistic skills they didn’t even know they had. They consider it a stroke of good fortune.

Three days a week, you can find older art students inside Patchworks Art Studio and Gallery on the Hope Town Square, perched in front of easels for four hours of painting and drawing lessons.

Instructor Rena Dillman, 78, who has been teaching art classes for 41 years, welcomes them into the stimulating environment of her bright and colorful studio.

“There’s something missing in their lives that this fulfills,” said Dillman, 78, who took lessons herself – initially right out of high school, then again after leaving a nursing career in 1984 to pursue her dream of being a full-time artist and art instructor.

About 80 percent of Dillman’s 25 students are 55 and older, and the numbers are growing.

“They have the time for it. Financially, they can afford it,” said Dillman, who then adds a third reason senior citizens from various walks of life are flocking to art lessons: “It’s the camaraderie.”

Typically, about eight students participate in each of three weekly sessions – held Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, when Dillman provides group and one-on-one direction. Students can utilize oil, acrylic, watercolor, pastel or charcoal in their creations.

“I usually start everyone out with oil because it’s the easiest, then we go from there,” Dillman said.

The first painting assignment is always a purple iris, which takes about two weeks for new artists to complete.

“Everyone can do it,” Dillman said. “It’s lovely.”

The second panting is typically a barn or other landscape.

“After that, they can choose,” Dillman said. “People do better work when it’s something they have an interest in.”

Brenda Elkins Parker was a journeyman tool designer for Cummins from 1978 through her 1998 retirement. Early on, she used pencils to draw pictures of engine parts. Later, she relied on computer-aided design to create three-dimension models.

But Parker, now 80, never had any training as a painter until she started taking lessons from Dillman five years ago.

“She can teach anyone to paint,” said the Waynesburg woman, who was Dillman’s artist of the month in October, when a student’s best work is showcased in the gallery’s front window.

“She has an uncanny sense of (knowing) when you have a problem,” Parker said of Dillman. “When you know there’s something that’s just not right, she shows you how to fix it – and then you learn.”

Parker’s painting skill under Dillman’s tutelage progressed quickly.

“She took to it like a duck to water,” Dillman said. “She loves detail. That’s why she’s so good.”

One of Parker’s most admired oils is a portrait she painted of her father, Clarence F. Elkins, utilizing a World War II era photograph of the Army lieutenant who was sent to occupied Japan.

The painting — her 18th — was done in 2018, one year after starting lessons with Dillman.

“Everyone is drawn to that one,” Dillman said of Parker’s tribute to her dad, which contains a lot of detail in his uniform.

The woman could paint at her home, but Parker prefers creating art among others like her in Dillman’s studio.

“They are the kindest, most loving group of people you’d ever hope to meet,” said Parker, who describes herself as “happy, content and joyful.”

One of Dillman’s newer students is Bob Davie of Columbus, an 85-year-old native of Scotland, who has been taking classes for about a year.

Davie, a senior technical adviser for Cummins from 1972-1987, was on a summer 2021 shopping trip with wife Sandra to Swiss Maid Country Market on the Hope Town Square when they peered inside the next-door window of Dillman’s art studio and saw students’ paintings on display.

“You need something to do. You should check it out,” Sandra Davie told her husband.

Davie has long enjoyed the arts as a 50-year euphonium player with the Columbus City Band, but had never tried his hand at painting until he started taking lessons with Dillman.

“I’m amazed at what I’ve done,” Davie said.

Davie is on his 12th painting, and recently had an inquiry from his dry cleaner to purchase one he did of a Scottish Highland cow and her calf – a pastoral memory from a 2019 trip to Scotland with his wife.

“If she still wants it, I’m going to sell it,” Davie said.

And then he’s going to paint another one just like it for Sandra.

Teacher’s journey

Dillman’s earliest memories of painting were as a child growing up in the small, eastern Indiana community of Metamora.

“My parents bought me a lot of paint-by-number painting kits,” Dillman said. “I painted and painted.”

While maintaining an interest in art while growing up, she didn’t take painting lessons until early adulthood.

Lythia Armbrister, the coordinator for Rena Blake’s 1963 wedding to Don Dillman, gave the couple a painting she created as a wedding gift.

“I kept after her – a friend of my husband’s parents – and asked if she would teach me,” Dillman said.

That persistence resulted in art training over the next few years, utilizing an easel and box full of paints and brushes that had been a present from her husband their first Christmas together.

But once her two young sons were old enough to be in school, Dillman set aside her interest in art and instead pursued nursing as a profession. She spent 1973-1984 in different stints as a pediatric, industrial and geriatric nurse.

While working at Miller’s Merry Manor nursing home in Hope, fellow staff members were struck by Dillman’s artistic ability after seeing a painting she made for a fundraiser – and encouraged her to not only keep painting, but to teach them and others.

The Hope woman took their advice and began working with art students in 1981 — and hasn’t looked back.

Dillman estimates that she has completed about 1,000 of her own paintings, an average of two per month since then. She is best known for her landscapes, but refers to portraits as her favorite.

One painting that Dillman did and has strong feelings about is “Anticipation,” which is on display – but not for sale — in the lobby of her gallery.

Dillman painted it in 2007, during short breaks she took while caring for her husband of 45 years in the final year of his life. Don Dillman, a community leader in Hope for more than 35 years, died at age 68 in April 2008.

Watching her husband die was very traumatic, Dillman said, so she painted “Anticipation” for therapeutic relief.

“When I paint, I rest my mind,” she said.

In “Anticipation,” a young woman is about to make her way down a staircase to head out on a date with a gentleman friend. “I wonder where she’s going and wonder what she’s thinking,” Dillman asks. “She looks happy and it made me happy to paint her.”

Dillman occasionally expresses herself in words instead of images, having self-published five books between her 2005 debut, the autobiographical “Patchwork Pieces of Life,” and the 2017 romance fiction book, “Where the Hollyhocks are Free to Grow.” Her books are normally available in her shop, and also through Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

Dillman, who uses a walker to get around, appreciates her students’ kindness in volunteering to help clean the studio, pick up her lunch or help her get to her car.

“These people are like my family,” she said. “I really feel this was God’s plan for my life all along … It’s been my great joy to help other people express themselves artistically.”

Rena Blake Dillman

Age: 78

Family: Married for 45 years to the late Don Dillman; son, Darrell Dillman, Pittsboro; late son Jon Dillman, Clifford

Hometown: Metamora, Indiana through 1958

Residence: Hope since 1965

Education: Licensed practical nursing degree, Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. School of Nursing, Columbus, 1973.

Career: Pediatric, industrial and geriatric nurse, 1973-1984; private art teacher, 1981-present; co-owner, Art from the Heart gallery, Metamora, 1983-1985; owner, Patchworks Art Studio and Gallery, Hope, 2008-present

Professional service: Founder, Art Guild of Hope, 2000