Since 2005, Topeka artist Gwen McClain artist has been the creative force behind Midland Care’s Memory Tree ornaments, creating the artwork featured on each year’s porcelain ornaments and medallions dedicated in honor of lost loved ones. In addition to being a way to keep the memory of loved ones close, the ornaments support charity care at Midland Care, ensuring the organization can care for anyone in need. Many local families collect these ornaments and look forward to receiving each year’s new design. We sat down with Gwen recently to talk about the project and her other work.
Hi Gwen, thanks for talking with us. What is your connection to Midland Care?
Gwen: I worked at Midland Care for 13 years as Grief and Loss Coordinator. I provided grief support groups for adults, children in group settings and individual counseling. I used art therapy with children and they seemed to respond really well to that. I also provided an art therapy group with for the Program of All Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) participants. I soon saw that grief and loss and the support that goes along with as an important need in our community. Basically wherever I was needed, I went. We live in a grief denying and death denying society. I wanted to show people it’s okay to have grief. I feel very fortunate to have worked at Midland Care.
What is it like working with grieving families?
Gwen: Working with people going through the grief and loss process really opens you up to their spiritual journey. I learned something from every single grieving person. When someone you love dies, not only are you devastated by the loss, but it brings your own mortality to the forefront. It makes you question what death means and what it means to you. When working with people who are dealing with a loss it’s important to go to that place with them, not ever telling them how to grieve and finding out what is that person’s meaning of life.
How long have you been designing the Memory Tree ornaments and do you have a favorite?
Gwen: I have been designing the Memory Tree ornaments for the past ten years. The Cardinal is my favorite. The jingle bell was very personal to me because the last year my mom was alive she gave us all presents that had jingle bells on the boxes. The ornament last year also had special meaning to me because it was a cat and dog. My dog died last year so that was a hard one to do.
How long have you been an artist?
Gwen: I’ve loved drawing since I can remember. I started out drawing because it was easiest and then moved onto painting. I started out drawing horses and I used to make paper dolls and clothes for the dolls with McCall patterns.
What is your favorite medium?
Gwen: It’s oil painting right now. I started with watercolors and then moved to oils. I was working and didn’t have a lot of time to devote to it. Initially, I started with colored pencil and pen ink because it was an easy medium to use. Lately I’ve been doing Plein Air painting – I take my portable easel and palette out to my cabin in the country and start painting whatever catches my eye. It’s typically done on a small 8×10 canvas and you have to work very quickly because of the sun and shadow changes. It’s all about capturing the light. A painting is typically done within a few hours.
Artistically, who are you influenced by?
Gwen: I really love Impressionism, the works of Monet and Cezane, because of the colors and the forms. I’ve read all about the history of art.
Where is your work shown?
Gwen: I am currently showing at the Studio 831 at 831 N Kansas Ave, in NOTO. I work with a group of artists who paint and work at the studio.
What are your hobbies and interests outside of art?
Gwen: Riding horses. I used to have horses. Walking and teaching yoga.
Are you a native Topekan?
Gwen: I was born in Kansas City, Missouri and moved here at the age of 4. I attended Topeka High School and Washburn University where I graduated with a Bachelor in Fine Arts. I attended Emporia University and received my Masters in Art Therapy. I’ve also attended a 5-week program from the Colorado State University Center for Loss and Transition Program. It was a certified program taught by [national author and educator] Allan Wolfeldt.
What would you like to tell us about your family?
Gwen: I am married and have three sons and four grandchildren. Morgan is the oldest grandchild, a freshman at Washburn University, Ivan is in 8th grade, his brother Max is in 2nd grade, and Walker is 2 years old and lives in New Orleans.
Thanks, Gwen. Any final thoughts?
Gwen: Everyone has an artistic ability within them. We all think about things differently. It’s just a matter of finding that special thing or outlet for you. Art provides stress relief and relaxation.