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Artist helps others discover artistic soul

by Luann Dart

Professional artist Nicole Gagner helps those with physical and developmental disabilities to discover art

Professional artist Nicole Gagner helps those with physical and developmental disabilities to discover art.(PHOTOS COURTESY NICOLE GAGNER)

Gently place a paintbrush in a hand and the artist’s soul will be revealed in the ripples of watercolor. Whether the artist is an elderly nursing home tenant or an autistic child, professional artist Nicole Gagner has discovered lots of artistic souls, as she works with a wide range of North Dakotans to explore their inner artist.

Growing up in Bismarck, Gagner dabbled in art as a child, dreaming of being a professional artist someday.

“I’ve always loved painting and drawing, ever since I was a little kid. When I was really small, as soon as I learned what an author/illustrator was, that you could write books and draw pictures for it, I was in. That was what my job was going to be,” she says.

She left North Dakota to pursue an art degree in Georgia, then moved to California, where she worked with adults with traumatic brain injuries and developmental disabilities, while continuing her art on the side.

When she and her husband, Scott Grandi-Hill, moved back to Bismarck four years ago, her two passions – art and helping others explore art – started to meld.

“Really, my heart was always in teaching people skills and helping them feel more self-sufficient, feel more connected to the community and have these things they’re proud of. Art was just a fast track to that, having these moments where they say, ‘Look at what I did. I can express myself. I have this thing that’s personal to me,’ ” Gagner describes. “I’m happy to be back where I can focus on those special times.”

Gagner’s art instruction began through VSA ND, an organization that brings art classes to groups of individuals of all ages with physical and intellectual disabilities.

“It’s bringing art to all ability levels,” she explains.

“Her work teaching art to students with a range of physical and cognitive disabilities solidified her idea that any person of any age can be an artist, if given the appropriate tools, opportunity and encouragement. That concept always has been at the center of Nicole’s personal artistic mission,” the North Dakota Council on the Arts states in a biography about Gagner.

Gagner brings chunky, adaptive tools, such as large-handled paintbrushes to steady a shaky hand, into her classroom. The use of forgiving mediums, like watercolors, are another way Gagner helps others find their inner artist, regardless of their ability.

Through VSA ND, Gagner has worked with students at Pride Manchester House in Bismarck, a psychiatric residential treatment facility for children, and at Jamestown’s Anne Carlsen Center, which provides support for those with developmental disabilities. At both locations, Gagner teaches classes in drawing and painting.

She brings lots of fun supplies into the classrooms, and encourages the students to experiment with art. Often, beginning artists are afraid of “failing,” but Gagner coaxes the inner artist out of everyone with gentle encouragement.

“A lot of times, people will end up making art for a family member or a loved one and have so much pride from having made something themselves,” she shares.

“Self-expression is so important and not everyone is able to express themselves verbally or through writing,” Gagner continues. “Instead of trying to write down words or say something, they can take the time to work on something that visually helps them work through a fear or anything they’ve been feeling, whether it’s good or bad.”

For example, Gagner also teaches at schools across the state through the North Dakota Council on the Arts Artist in Residence program. There, she first has the students fold paper into a sketchbook, which they then use through the week.

“A lot of kids turn it into a journal of their week,” she says. She has the students talk about their art and they present an art show at the end of the week.

“That pride and sense of accomplishment is such a big thing with those kids,” she says.

Since moving back to North Dakota, Gagner has become a full-time freelance artist, which includes working with others to express themselves. But she also found something within herself on the North Dakota prairie.

“I’ve reconnected with things that I didn’t even realize how important they were to me until we moved back. One big example of that would be the big fluffy clouds and the distinct color of sky that, to me, is North Dakota sky,” she explains.

“Painting North Dakota landscapes was a great way to reconnect with that and reconnect with those colors,” she says.

Gagner also discovered her love of gardening and preserving food from the garden.

“It’s something that my mom did the whole time I was growing up and then my grandma was famous for her pickle recipe. She had great pickles,” she shares.

But Gagner discovered her late grandmother’s pickle recipe died with her, since she never had a written recipe and made her pickles from memory. So, Gagner has been trying to replicate those pickles.

“I’ve been trying to recreate her pickles. I have the look down, but they don’t taste quite the same as hers,” she says.

Soon, replicating the visual memory of her grandmother’s pickles became a passion for Gagner. Many of her paintings are of those pickle jars.

“I love the colors of them; I love how they look. They’re beautiful to look at, but there’s also an important story behind it – these homemade things with these family traditions and family recipes,” she says.

Gagner then decided to take her pickles into the classroom through the Art for Life program through the North Dakota Council on the Arts, which brings art to those living in assisted living, nursing home facilities or other elder care facilities.

She starts by letting her pupils taste her pickles and talk about their own memories and experiences with preserving garden produce. Once they’ve shared their stories, they pick out colored paper to make a collage of a jar filled with preserved fruits or vegetables.

“They’ll make a visual representation of a memory or an idea of pickles,” she says.

The colored paper is then glued onto a jar shape on a piece of paper, then the students do a painting based on the pattern they’ve created.

“We’re just being inspired by those colors or shapes,” Gagner says. “It’s a very low barrier of entry.”

While the elderly students get an art lesson and learn to explore art, Gagner gets something in return.

“I love hearing the stories. I heard a lot of stories of pickle crocks or sneaking pickles from the basement,” she says. “It’s really fun. People open up very quickly.”

While Gagner uses mostly watercolor to make art accessible to everyone during her classes, she is an oil painter, using a more complex medium to create her images.

Her art is semi-abstract, with vibrant colors of North Dakota landscapes or rows of pickle jars.

“Color is more important to me. Form and shape are important, but color is the thing that really sings to me, so I focus on color more than anything,” she says. “I really like big brushstrokes, where you can really see the texture and the energy of how I was moving through the painting with those brushstrokes.”

Gagner shares her work through her website page, http://nicolegagner.wixsite.com/artwork, and her work is often displayed at Bismarck art galleries, including the Bismarck Downtown Artist Cooperative and the newly opened Blue Sky Bismarck, and at Caffe Aroma. Last summer, she also created a 15x20 mural in the Art Alley 2.5 project, which placed murals on downtown Bismarck buildings.

Gagner relishes how people respond to her art.

“Making art by myself alone in a bubble wouldn’t be as fulfilling as hearing other people making connections to it and having their own personal take on it,” she says.

But she particularly loves how people respond to their own art.

“A change can sometimes happen from the beginning where people are feeling very unsure and then they leave with something they are proud of. I love hearing their stories and being a part of their life for a little bit.”


Luann Dart is a freelance writer and editor who lives in the Elgin area.