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Brian and Byron Hendrickson have led tough lives. For the past decade the brothers, ages 60 and 68 respectively, have lived in separate single-room apartments down the hall from each other in Catholic Charities' Higher Ground Minneapolis, a residence for people at risk of homelessness. Indeed, the two were homeless for several years before that, after their mother died in 2008 and they lost the family's house.

Both say they suffer from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder they trace to abuse and bullying they experienced as children. They also have an assortment of chronic physical problems. Byron uses a walker and Brian a cane.

Despite all that, the brothers also can talk excitedly about a variety of shared cultural interests. Recently, they've developed a new one — drawing. They got into drawing by attending a drawing class offered by the Vitality Arts Project at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

"Even that small start was just so much fun," Byron said.

Before the class, Byron hadn't drawn anything since school and Brian had done so only occasionally (several years ago, he wrote and illustrated a children's book, so far unpublished). Since the class ended in August, the brothers haven't stopped drawing. They create art that showcases some of their other major passions, from ancient mythology to classic literature to Taylor Swift.

Byron (left) and Brian Hendrickson have endured hardship, but can cheerfully discuss their many shared fascinations.
Byron (left) and Brian Hendrickson have endured hardship, but can cheerfully discuss their many shared fascinations.

Eliot Berven, Catholic Charities Twin Cities

The program, funded by seed grants from Minneapolis-based E.A. Michelson Philanthropy to 25 museums and other organizations across the country, provides art instruction to people ages 55 and older. Mia offered free workshops to older adults in organizations around the Twin Cities, including Catholic Charities.

Research indicates art could help promote healthy aging. Art is "not a marginal and elitist avenue," a 2022 study published by Frontiers in Psychology declared, "but rather a mainstream tool that helps older people remain active, healthy and independent."

Drawings and other artworks by students in those workshops are on display through Nov. 12 in "55 and Better," a free exhibit in Mia's Katherine Kierland Herberger Gallery in the Community Commons.

The exhibit has drawn a fair amount of attention, said Julie Bourman, coordinator of Mia's Vitality Arts program. In fact, one Mia visitor expressed interest in buying a couple of the brothers' drawings, Bourman said. Not for sale, Byron said — they're too special — though he seemed happy to hear it.

Byron is working on a new drawing of mythological figures, including Cyclops (center of page).
Byron is working on a new drawing of mythological figures, including Cyclops (center of page).

Eliot Berven, Catholic Charities Twin Cities

Brian was also gratified by having his art displayed. "I was very proud. Especially when I saw people admiring what I created."

Wide-ranging interests

The Hendrickson brothers speak frankly about the struggles they've faced. The distant relationships they both have with their two other siblings. The times they slept amid people fighting and taking drugs (the brothers say they've never smoked or used chemicals). The person they considered a friend who stole an estimated $150,000 to $200,000 worth of inventory from their antiques and collectibles business.

"What they stole from us should have been 10 months' rent," Brian said.

Byron has battled suicidal thoughts throughout his life, including "some really dark moments a few weeks ago," he said.

But a minute later, they're both cheerfully discussing their many shared fascinations, including music, literature, mythology, comic books, World War II. They can rattle off trivia from memory, such as the years and ages at which various rock stars died. They've collected hundreds of celebrity signatures, from Jane Fonda to Howard Morris, the actor who played Ernest T. Bass on "The Andy Griffith Show."

And yes, they're big fans of Swift and have seen her live (not her appearance in Minneapolis in June — couldn't afford tickets). One of Brian's drawings in the Mia exhibit is a tribute to Swift, a chart of locations significant in her life: the Christmas-tree farm in Wyomissing, Pa., where she grew up, the bench dedicated to her in Nashville's Centennial Park and dozens of other special places, including fictional places invoked in her song lyrics.

Brian drew Fenrir, a wolf from Norse mythology.
Brian drew Fenrir, a wolf from Norse mythology.

Eliot Berven, Catholic Charities Twin Cities

Other drawings focus on different passions. Byron illustrates a list of titles and authors of books he's read recently — including "The Scarlet Letter," "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," "Charlotte's Web," "Frankenstein" — and another of his drawings depicts a waterfall inspired by Minnehaha Falls. Brian has one of Fenrir, a wolf from Norse mythology who bit off the hand of the god Tyr, an act that's depicted in the drawing.

'Growth for everybody'

"I have very little belief in talent," said Lynda Monick-Isenberg, professor emeritus at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and instructor of the Vitality Arts class that the brothers attended.

Practice and commitment are the keys to developing artistic skill, she said. The students in her class drew various things (tools, their own hands, landscapes) using different drawing media (charcoal, colored pencils) while learning about positive and negative space, perspective and other techniques.

Although students started at various levels of skill, the class provided "growth for everybody," Monick-Isenberg said. "I have a strong belief that all adults can learn and that's what we need to do as we age."

Byron (left) and Brian discuss drawings with their art teacher, Lynda Monick-Isenberg
Byron (left) and Brian discuss drawings with their art teacher, Lynda Monick-Isenberg

Eliot Berven, Catholic Charities Twin Cities

The class succeeded in creating social engagement as much as artistic development, Bourman said. Especially after the isolation many older adults experienced during the peak of the pandemic, "many people say, 'It's the highlight of my week.'"

Students in the class "came out of their shells," said Monique Gooch, a Catholic Charities case manager. After the class ended, Higher Ground residents spent more time outside their rooms, engaging with others, building relationships.

"Art kind of connected everybody in the class," Gooch said. "We've seen such positive things come out of it. Everybody's a little lighter on their feet."

Monick-Isenberg not only noticed a change in students' behavior as the class progressed, but she also felt her own outlook expanding, she said.

"I changed my perception of people that struggle in certain ways," Monick-Isenberg said. Before that, "I was probably trying very hard in my very liberal body not to have stereotypes — and I had stereotypes."

Tasha Mays, a program manager at Higher Ground, wasn't sure the program would be effective, but "it has really been impactful," she said. "It was a big deal."

Because the brothers suffer from social anxiety, Byron said, they were apprehensive before the class began. But any doubts vanished once the workshop was underway.

"Once I got into the class it was so great," Byron said. "In a desert of physical and mental pain, this was an oasis."

Correction: An earlier version of this story should have said a Mia visitor wanted to buy one drawing from each of the Hendrickson brothers.