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Giving thanks through art

Donna Lenz Wright/The Week

(Published Nov. 16, 2007, 5:11 p.m.)

Terry Mayer/The Week
Karen Gross in her studio.

Karen Gross came to the area to quietly retire near her family. Then her good heart and caring personality inadvertently changed the lives of her neighbors.

"This just seems to be her mission," said friend and student Trudy Krinner. "She keeps on giving."

Gross, a native Midwesterner, has spent her entire life giving--first as a nurse and now as a good neighbor, friend and teacher of art.

She moved into the Havenwood Apartments in Lake Geneva, a subsidized apartment community for senior and disabled adults, and saw very quickly that her new neighbors lacked the stimulation and excitement that having a good hobby can bring.

"As I looked around I saw that classes and art supplies were totally out of the realm of the average person on a fixed income," Gross said.

"It just makes your heart ache when you have people with time and talent, and not the funds."

What seems little more than a darn shame to most was a no-brainer for Gross. She started free art classes for her neighbors.

There are some students who can't afford the classes, or the supplies. So Gross--herself on a fixed income--takes care of those too, many times out of her own pocket, Krinner said.

One of the most modest people you could meet, Gross accepts donations and has had support from the Havenwood management.

"The owners of the building, Metro Association of Milwaukee, have been real supportive of the program and donated many times. It's pretty nice when a profit-making business cares like that.

"I try to use the best materials because it really does make a difference, and somehow or another we always make it."

Her paycheck is the satisfaction and pride her students show after creating a real piece of art, she said.

 She has the credentials of someone whose classes could cost a pretty penny. She studied art at Wheaton College, in Wheaton, Ill.; Northwest School of Art in Portland, Ore.; Clackamas Community College in Oregon; served as an activities director at several retirement communities in the Portland, Ore., area; exhibits with the Geneva Lake Art Association; and has taught art classes since her college days.

Her gift of art has changed the lives of many in her classes and improved the lives of the others.

"You can see they've blossomed--I don't think their world is very big," Gross says empathetically.

"We have some disabled neighbors--some mentally, some physically--and this has changed their lives because they succeed at something.

"Some of them have been put down, but I see real changes in them. They've become different people."

Her neighbors decorate their homes with the art they've created and give them as gifts--many times when they would have had no gift to give, never mind one of such a personal nature.

"It's very special to them," Gross said. "Just think of how their children feel to have something so wonderful from them.

"That's what's important to me."

Her genuine nature makes the true impact of her gifts get lost in her eyes, but not in others'.

"You just don't meet people like Karen all the time," Krinner said. "She only can take so many (students), but she gives so much and she expects really nothing."

Krinner says she sees life through art better now because of Gross' classes, and has created some pretty darn good paintings herself, especially her last work, "Autumn Leaves."

"I never knew I could make something like this," she says. "Karen has taught me to appreciate art more--art everywhere. What she's done is very heartwarming and it's done me a lot of good.

"She's opened my eyes--and I never thought I was blind."

The art show

The Havenwood Art Classes Holiday Show of over 100 paintings is happening this weekend, Nov. 17-18, noon-4 p.m., at Havenwood Apartments, 250 Havenwood Drive, Lake Geneva.

All pieces are professionally matted and many are for sale. Gross will also be selling Christmas cards and note cards to help fund the art supplies for the classes. She will also be having demonstrations of painting techniques for all ages.

The quarterly shows at Havenwood Apartments also serve as an open house and art show for the residents' families.

"The shows are so much fun. We can hear how much they appreciate their art when they say, 'Look what Grandma did," she laughed.

Artists include: Jerane Pribel, Elaine Clauson, Barb Karcher, Trudy Krinner, Joyce Morgan, Jeanette Schindler, Andy Takaya, Doris Hinz, Diane Werschkul, Jeanette Kutz and Judy Kahlstrom.


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