Marie Seltz's professional career consisted of teaching and child rearing. But in her 102nd year, she's exploring newfound talents -- as an artist.

Seltz, 101, is a resident of the Lighthouse of Waconia, a senior living community where "life enrichment" host Cathy Menssen leads groups of budding potters, painters and sculptors in discovering the joys of art in their 80s and 90s.

They held their first art exhibition earlier this month, inviting the public to come in and see creations by residents, many of whom had never wielded a brush or formed clay before they began classes in April. One wing of the building still exhibits their paintings, sculptures and mixed-media art. Residents on the second floor are eager to see the art fill their upstairs hallways as well.

Menssen said the quality of the art is exceptional. Subjects range from Lake Waconia and other nature scenes to animals and flowers, and they brighten the walls where they hang.

But more importantly, Menssen believes the residents feel a renewed sense of purpose through their art.

While Menssen isn't a therapist, she said she has seen improvements in the emotional health of residents, some of whom have memory loss.

How it all started

Menssen was hired as the Lighthouse's host and life enrichment assistant in February.

During the early 2000s she had taught classes of mostly children at an art gallery she opened in Waconia. The studio has since closed, but she said through it she discovered her favorite groups to work with were inter-generational -- a mixture of all ages. So when she came to the Lighthouse, she had an idea her art classes might catch on.

She recognized that many of the Lighthouse residents would be interested from comments they made. So in April, she began the classes, showing the residents techniques in painting and pottery and letting them experiment with painting acrylics on paper and creating handmade pottery. The results were remarkable.

Now she hosts two days of group classes and two days of one-on-one art sessions each week for seniors at the Lighthouse.

The artists

Merl Peek spent many years working as a lawyer. He settled into the Lighthouse after his wife, Carol Jean, passed away more than three years ago. The 96-year-old has trouble remembering some details of his life, but when he began painting with Menssen, memories came back with the art he was creating.

On one afternoon, Menssen brought photos of horses for the residents to look through. When Peek spotted a white horse, he remembered his childhood horse, Dick.

Peek began telling Menssen about the horse's features and personality. He ended up painting "Ol' Dick" and entered it in the Carver County Fair, where it won ribbons.

Just like Peek, Seltz hadn't tried her hand at art before taking Menssen's class. But now she says she likes "creating something" and is eager to continue.

Her next project is a painting of her Christmas tree, complete with a white tree skirt and red-and-green sparkles.

Menssen said with each piece, the residents pay strong attention to details, which sometimes can be stunning.

In addition to the art show, Menssen has assembled pictures of the residents' art into a photo book showing the process of creating each piece, from beginning to end. The residents tackle their projects in stages, which is more manageable for them.

Menssen has been able to involve more than 20 Lighthouse residents in the classes, a number she hopes will grow in the coming years. She plans to expand her teaching to include watercolors in the coming months.

Joy E. Petersen is a Minneapolis freelance writer.