Learn to Paint
A gift of lessons has unlocked a hidden talent for Phyllis Bussing
By Jodi Keen
Sometimes, learning something new happens by chance. When Phyllis Bussing retired in 2008 as director of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Evansville, she found she “hated retirement,” she says.
“I thought maybe I’ll fall into it, but I did not,” she says. “The two years after I retired were the hardest two years of my life. I struggled. I had not cultivated friendships outside of work.”
A part-time teaching job at the University of Southern Indiana helped fill some of the gaps, but Bussing still didn’t like the downtime. So, for Christmas 2012, Bussing’s husband, Bill, gave her lessons for painting classes.
“I thought he pulled it out of the air. I was trying to be gracious about my gift, but I had no idea where this was going,” she says. “I resisted because of lack of experience, but Bill said, ‘I see an artist in you. From the way you dress to how you decorate, you’re an artistic person.’”
Initially, Bussing was not convinced.
“I was very nervous because I don’t like to fail at anything. I have very high expectations for myself,” she says.
Her first classes were in a group at the Evansville Museum of Arts, History & Science.
“I walked in and had no idea what to do,” Bussing says, but she had a patient instructor in Evansville artist Connie Bell.
Bell guided her through drawing a design on the canvas and then filling in the details with paint, a process she still follows. The structured, life-like images that emerged “surprised and amazed” her, Bussing says.
“There was that moment of self-discovery,” she says. “I’m very self-aware and try very hard to understand myself, and this was a revelation: ‘Maybe there’s more to me than I thought?’”
More classes followed, including group classes at Angel Mounds Historic Site led by Joanne Massey, who Bussing credits with making her “the artist I am today. I have learned so much from her.”
Bussing most enjoys painting florals and rabbits. Beginning with a dark background, she draws details in chalk and layers on bright acrylic paint so the canvas pops.
Along the way, she has gained confidence — she is no longer reluctant to show loved ones her work. She’s even sold several paintings and donated others to fundraisers for organizations such as Youth First.
“It’s incredible when you discover something in yourself. It’s a strange feeling. This is like an a-ha moment: this was in my brain, and I didn’t know it!” she says. “I get so animated when I talk about it. That’s a sign that this has hit the core of my being.”
“Learning to paint has made me so much more aware of how artists express themselves,” she says. “I notice things I never noticed before, like shadows. It was the biggest surprise after four or five years of painting. I could look at a tree and never notice the shadows. Now, I see how the light hits it, and I look at it differently. If I were painting it, I would put the shadows here, or I would highlight there. It opened a world that was always there; I just didn’t see it.”
Years after that eyebrow-raising Christmas gift, Bussing is grateful to her husband of 25 years for connecting the dots between her potential and a new passion. Now, Bussing is an advocate for pursuing new avenues of self-exploration.
“Not everyone will fall in love with it as much as I did, but even if they think they can’t paint, I encourage them to try. I’m living proof you might be able to and not know it,” she says.
Learn to Be an Indiana Master Naturalist at Wesselman Woods Nature Preserve
Deepen your connection to Southwestern Indiana’s ecology
By Maggie Valenti
Stepping outside every day, many may not notice the intricacies of the nature around them, but it is all essential to keeping wildlife and plants in equilibrium. To learn about the local environment, Tri-State residents have turned to Wesselman Woods Nature Preserve to participate in a 12-week program and become an Indiana Master Naturalist.
With the support of local researchers, professors, and environmental practitioners, participants learn about the nature that makes Evansville unique. Topics include learning about our area’s plants, water, soils, and wildlife. The program encourages volunteering at local wildlife and nature preserves.
River City native Annie Svendsen, a volunteer at Wesselman Woods and the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge and Management Area in Oakland City, Indiana, has always had a passion for nature but admits she “didn’t really know a ton” about what she was surrounded by, so she joined the IMN class.
Throughout the program, the Purdue University graduate and her group of fellow IMN students studied several topics, including how to identify different species of local trees, wildflowers, wildlife, plants, and fungi. They met weekly and watched videos before lessons.
“It’s great learning about the place you grew up,” she says.
Svendsen says the experience was hands-on and involved exploring Wesselman Woods. For the geology portion of the program, University of Southern Indiana instructor Carrie Wright showed the group how to gauge the age of rocks, which students then identified in a laboratory.
Texas native Peggy Corkran, who moved to Evansville two and a half years ago, says her retirement afforded her the time to branch out and pursue becoming an Indiana Master Naturalist.
Corkran says one of the more interesting things she learned was how to identify animals from their skulls. Svendsen says her favorite part of the experience was getting to know other people with similar interests.
“It was exciting to know how many other people are interested in the environment and protecting it,” Svendsen says.
Svendsen plans to apply lessons from the experience to a new career as an environmental educator at Wesselman Woods in January.
“I wanted to do something with my career centered around nature,” she says. “This experience sparked my interest even more.”
Corkran, who also is a Wesselman Woods volunteer, says the experience has helped her in her own backyard and volunteer work, in which she frequently removes invasive species. She hopes to one day become an advanced Indiana Master Naturalist.
Learn to Sew
Julie Thompson rediscovers her love for a needle and thread after a 15-year hiatus
By Maggie Valenti
Sewing is not a new skill for Julie Thompson, but she is becoming reacquainted with it after a 15-year hiatus.
The Chandler, Indiana, native started sewing at age four, but learning a new form — couture sewing — has made her a better overall seamstress.
Before she rediscovered sewing, the Castle High School graduate considered her talent to be at the intermediate level. Thompson first learned from her grandmother, then her mother. During her school years, she sewed during home economics class and in 4-H.
Thompson, who now lives in Portland, Oregon, studied apparel design at the now-closed Art Institute of Portland, but she says nothing she learned could have fully prepared her for the rigors of couture sewing. Her interest was sparked while the COVID-19 pandemic first raged, and Thompson read, researched, scoured the internet, and even bought a video course from haute couture seamstress and educator Susan Khalje.
Impressed by Khalje, Thompson often rewatches that original video course while she sews. She also drove to California to take a class with Khalje in May 2021.
Thompson says it takes her around 50 hours to complete each piece of perfectly measured couture clothing, mostly because of the stitches’ fine detail. She devotes six to seven hours each weekend day to sewing her garments.
“It’s sewing, but more like what your grandparents would have done. Definitely not fast sewing, but I like that about it,” she says.
Couture sewing also is a very involved process. Most of the garment is sewn by hand, with just the sides completed by machine. Thompson says it involves often being poked by a needle.
“I do poke myself a lot,” she says. “It’s a lot of sewing. There are miles and miles of hand stitching in each garment.”
Since Thompson began working with couture, she says she has “sewed a new wardrobe.” She has around 1,500 vintage sewing patterns from the 1930s to the 1960s, with a focus on the ‘50s, stored in boxes in her home since she started collecting them in 1996. Since she has had more time to devote to the craft, she feels her skills have been elevated.
“I’ve learned to construct something that had a lot of thought put into it,” she says.
Learn to Dance Ballet
Weekly classes have helped students like Madison Snodgrass connect to new friends and herself
By Jodi Keen
Madison Snodgrass was looking for a challenge, and ballet classes seemed like a good fit. She was interested in learning a new form of dance but apprehensive to try as an adult with no formal training. A friend recommended a class at Lush Movement Company on North First Avenue, and Snodgrass has found improvements in her life from focus to confidence.
“I was nervous to try ballet as an adult, but I’m so glad I went for it,” the Evansville native and massage therapist says. “I think I wanted to challenge myself to step out of my comfort zone.”
Through weekly classes under the tutelage of instructor Carrie Rogers, Snodgrass has learned, in addition to dance techniques, that her body and mind are capable of things she never knew.
“I remember the first time I tried a Pas de bourrée (a three-step movement). I couldn’t figure out how to place my feet,” she says. “Ballet requires a body-mind connection, and as someone who has been diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, these types of dance have been incredibly beneficial. I’ve found that connecting my body and mind has been so helpful in everything from focus to my confidence.”
Lush offers classes focused on rhythmic movement, from pole and chair dance to jazz and contemporary choreography. Snodgrass says despite her initial hesitation, she enjoys learning in a collaborative environment.
“The sense of community is my favorite. Although I’ve never had any classical dance training, I felt very welcomed,” she says. “At the end of class, we do a ‘reverence’ where we bow and curtsy and clap for each other, and it makes me so happy every time.”
The emotional and social benefits have been impactful, too.
“I’ve made a lot of friends in the studio, which is really special. As an adult, it can feel like there aren’t as many opportunities to make friends,” she says. “I’m so thankful the studio is a safe space for people to learn dance without judgment.”
Learn to be a Leader
Hone your skills at a ‘bootcamp’ for professionals
By Jodi Keen
Julie Hoon already was leading a group of 10 as the vice president for philanthropy at Youth First, but she wanted to sharpen her leadership skills around goal setting, performance feedback, and constructive criticism. So, she joined a one-day Leadership Coaching Bootcamp offered by the University of Evansville.
“The thought of coaching-style leadership really resonates with me,” she says. “I’ve played sports my entire life, and my coaches were some of my strongest mentors and leaders. Coaches demonstrate strategic thinking, motivation, mentorship, and positive energy in their roles, and that is the kind of leader I strive to be.”
The “bootcamp” — so named for the four sessions packed into one morning — is part of UE’s Center for the Advancement of Learning, which offers a range of extended learning opportunities, from professional development and non-credit online courses to certificates.
Bootcamp participants learn team-building skills through brain-buster activities, role-play problem solving, and listen to a lineup of local guest speakers. Hoon especially enjoyed meeting others looking to become better leaders.
“I connected with many of them outside of class as well, so the class immediately led to strengthening my business networks,” she says.
The experience so inspired Hoon, she says she was eager to immediately share her insights.
“I found myself wanting to bring the coaching mindset and skills I was adopting back to my workplace right away,” she says. “I was eager to use new coaching tools with my direct reports and my team, and I also put together a mini leadership training session to share with other managers at Youth First.”
Learn to Scuba Dive
Explore different worlds under the waves
By Jodi Keen
Doug Duell may be a fan of cars, but underwater, he has eyes only for the scenery. Duell discovered a love for scuba diving in 1993 while on vacation in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. The group from Evansville stayed at an all-inclusive resort and indulged in golf, which Duell at the time didn’t play. So, he opted for a scuba discovery course at the resort, and a new world opened up to him.
“I really liked the coral and bright tropical fish. That first dive happened to be in an area that looks like an aquarium, with a lot of bright saltwater fish,” he says. “Even though it was my first dive, I found it to be extremely relaxing.”
Duell’s wife, Anne, learned to dive in the late 1990s, but she took a bit more convincing.
“She didn’t really want to do it, but I always noticed she loved to watch nature shows about the ocean on TV, and for Christmas one year, I gave her an Aquatech Scuba Center training package,” Duell says. “It’s a lot more fun when you have a buddy and can share the stuff you see underwater.”
North American residents learning to dive typically are certified by instructors at a local dive shop by one of four organizations: Scuba Schools International (SSI), the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI), Scuba Diving International (SDI), or the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI). Whether private lessons or group studies, courses can be a multi-day intensive or spread out over several weeks.
Before ever jumping into the pool to practice safety procedures, divers are fitted for equipment, including a dive suit; weight belt to counter buoyancy; fins for the feet; masks snugly covering the nose and eyes; a stabilization vest known as a buoyancy control device; and a regulator providing oxygen from an air tank. On land, the weight of this gear adds up — there’s a reason why gear-laden divers waddle when they walk — but in the water, they are tuned to harmoniously establish balance, regulate airflow, and control buoyancy.
Once under the waves — of a pool; candidates for deep-water diving, like Duell, don’t see an open body of water until they’ve completed several education steps, such as learning to respond to the surrounding pressure and depth — time slows down, surface sounds are muffled, and a quiet peace settles in. Scuba enthusiasts have reported a decrease in blood pressure, reduced anxiety, and general sense of calm resulting from a good dive.
Duell — “very much a warm water guy,” he says — enjoys the scenery the most, particularly in Maui, Hawaii, and Turks and Caicos.
“I like sharks, and you can usually see sharks in both those places,” he says. “The water is so full of life.”
The retired longtime owners of Duell’s Evansville Kia and Duell’s Evansville Hyundai have dived at tropical locations around the world, including Fiji, Indonesia, Hawaii, Bonaire, several spots in Mexico, the Bahamas and St. Thomas. They join a group from Aquatech for an international trip about once a year.
“(Aquatech Owner) Larry (Babcock) is a really good guy, and they’re really fun to travel with,” Duell says.
Duell has completed enough training and specialties — such as night diving, deep diving, and navigation — to earn an advanced diving certification. A bonus of getting certified: It’s good for life.
“Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it forever,” he says.
As proficient, longtime divers, the Duells have built their own collection of equipment. They use Scubapro gear and have seen improved safety standards and more streamlined and lighter equipment since the 1990s. Duell says they appreciate connecting with other divers, especially in Evansville.
“Over the years, we’ve met people on dive trips or the dive shop here, and we’ve made new friends and gone on trips,” he says. “It’s a great spot to meet people because you have a common interest.”
Learn to Create an Arrangement
Mary Allen embraces her ‘flower power’ in a new art form
By Maggie Valenti
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but it can take a lot of effort to make something shine. Intrigued by the art of floral arrangement, Mary Allen, owner of Sixth and Zero, a shop selling sustainable products in Downtown Evansville, took a class with her mother-in-law, Willie Allen, at neighboring Emerald Design with owner Whitney Muncy. Allen’s mother-in-law was part of a garden club in Louisiana.
“I thought it would be nice to get out and spend some time together, have her touch flowers again,” says Allen, a Cincinnati, Ohio, native who moved here 30 years ago. “It was just a really sweet time for me and my mother-in-law.”
Allen says the class focused on how to design and create a floral bouquet, with Muncy sharing information about the use of locally grown flowers and the importance of supporting area growers. Allen learned to balance the arrangement in height and color so that the look and design are aesthetically pleasing. With Muncy’s guidance, Allen says her arrangement turned out better than if she created it on her own.
“There is a lot more that goes into it,” she says.
While she does not wish to arrange flowers for a living — nor, she says, would she trust her own flower-arranging capabilities after one class — Allen says the experience gave her “a better idea of which flowers and accent pieces I want to pick out.”
Emerald Design, which opened last year on Main Street, has its own flower bar where shoppers can choose florals and foliage to design their own bouquets, pieces, and arrangements. Allen says now she can navigate the flower bar with more confidence.
“It was about just stepping out and doing something different, just having a fun evening out to create and learn about something different,” she says. “Whitney made it a really enjoyable experience, and I got to leave with a beautiful creation that I put together myself.”
Learn to Cook
Give your food flair with cooking classes
By Maggie Valenti and Jodi Keen
Cooking can be a daunting exercise. The instructions may be time-consuming, the ingredients confusing, and the supplies a cluttered mess, making the entire experience overwhelming. Eventually, though, we all should leave behind youthful eating habits, like indulging in cold pizza for breakfast. Eating well and creatively starts in the kitchen.
Sue Blakeslee wanted to jazz up her meals, so she booked a spot in a cooking class at Thyme in the Kitchen, a West Franklin Street establishment that provides, among many things, kitchen accessories and cooking instruction.
“Having watched cooking shows on TV for years, I wanted to learn to cook like a chef,” Blakeslee says.
Cooking students are taken beyond simply putting pasta in a pot of boiling water and waiting five minutes for it to cook. Classes discuss proper cookware, substitutions, and how to combine and balance ingredients so the meal results in its best version.
“I have learned tips like running a baguette under water before placing it in a hot oven for 10 minutes. This makes the outside crusty and the inside moist and tender,” Blakeslee says.
Students practice different cooking techniques and learn how to pick the best products. Taking simple steps like choosing the right item at the grocery store can help in achieving the best cooking results possible. For some students, their kitchen revelations involve common ingredients they know quite well.
“Did you know to leave your thyme leaves on the stem when using them in soups or stews? No need to pick them off — after the soup is done, all the leaves have fallen off the stem, and you just remove that,” Blakeslee says. “I have learned proper chopping techniques and tips about knives that are amazing.”
Blakeslee has attended at least 50 classes, often with a friend or in a group, and loves that students can take home a printed recipe card with the evening’s entire menu. Theresa Harper, another Thyme in the Kitchen cooking student, says the classes always are better when she can share them with her husband, children, or friends.
“My son attended the knife skills class last year. The staff let him try different knives to find the correct one for him,” Harper says.
As someone who needed a break from going out to eat, Harper’s experience with cooking classes added variety to her palate. Even with a general knowledge of cooking, there is always something new to learn that can spice things up — figuratively and literally — in the kitchen.
“Cooking classes are a great break from just going out to dinner at the same restaurants,” she says. “I pick classes with dishes that sound interesting to me or that I think my family would enjoy eating. I can’t wait to learn new skills for use at home.”
Learn to Ride Horses
Gallop through the new year with this common yet challenging skill
By Maggie Valenti
Horseback riding is a sport or hobby for any age. Signal Knob Equestrian Center on Evansville’s North Side works with children as young as three and adults over age 60. Proving that horseback riding has no age limit, one well-known Canadian equestrian, Ian Millar, retired from top international competition in 2019 at age 72.
“Riding is the fun part, but taking care of the horse is just as important,” says Annabelle Lansdale, 19, who is a trainer at Signal Knob Equestrian Center, daughter of the barn’s owner, Susannah Lansdale, and a student at Oakland City University.
Lansdale says the equestrian center provides a well-rounded education, including teaching riders how to tack up, untack, and care for the horse, as well as basic horse anatomy. She frequently sends a weekly text message to riders with fun horse facts. Although it’s beneficial to get used to horses at a young age, “it doesn’t matter how old you are, you need to learn the basics of the discipline.”
“That first lesson is me getting to know them, them getting to know the horse, and seeing how much they already know, and then letting them know what to expect from future lessons,” she says.
In the first few lessons, Lansdale holds the reins while the rider learns basics like how to steer, and once that is accomplished, she will let the rider walk around on their own. Lansdale then puts the rider on a long lead line to learn how to trot and canter.
There are two main riding styles: English — think dressage, show jumping, three-day eventing, polo, or racing — and Western — think cowboys, cutting cattle, team penning, or barrel racing. Signal Knob teaches English-style riding, but Lansdale says regardless of the discipline a person chooses, there still are common fundamentals to learn.
It takes years of dedicated training to become a skilled rider, and like many sports, a person may never master it.
One beginner student at Signal Knob, 17-year-old Central High School student Ariana Halbig, says she loves the connection she has with two horses she rides, Jack and Bruno.
“(Lansdale) helped me develop a good bond between me and my horse,” Halbig says. “I’ve really considered doing it in the future, learning how to jump.”
While Halbig was a bit shaken after a fall, she worked with Lansdale to regain her confidence. Riding an 800-1,000 pound or more animal with a mind of its own comes with its own set of challenges.
Christina Mendias’ son, Ethan, 15, started riding in October. While Mendias grew up around racehorses, Ethan’s first time up close with a horse was his inaugural lesson at Signal Knob. She says part of the reason he started lessons was to have an extracurricular activity and a community to be involved in.
“Ethan is homeschooled; he needed an extracurricular,” she says.
While Mendias is comfortable around horses, her husband and son were a little nervous. Those nerves were dispelled quickly.
“Ethan was nervous at first, but (Lansdale) helped him with knowing what he can and can’t do,” she says.
Another parent, Amye Bryant, says her daughter, Irelyn, 10, also was timid.
“There was a lit bit of shyness, nervousness. The excitement balanced it out for her,” Bryant says.
Irelyn started riding horses last summer, and Bryant says she loves it. Unlike Mendias and Lansdale, no one in Bryant’s family has a background working with horses.
“It’s been wonderful. My daughter loves it. Now, she can go get the horse ready without any instruction. My fears were calmed early on, maybe in the first two lessons,” Bryant says.
The benefits of horseback riding are not just physical. It provides people with community and shared responsibility, learning how to work hard and take care of and connect with horses. There are therapeutic benefits, not just for overall mental well-being but for those with learning and physical disabilities.
Signal Knob hosts shows just for its students to help them gain confidence and experience competing. The center also holds events for students, parents, and those who work at the barn to connect and bond over their shared interests.
Get better acquainted with the Tri-State’s feathered friends
By Maggie Valenti
Amateur birder Evan Speck estimates there are anywhere from 250 to 300 bird species that inhabit or migrate through the Evansville area. Luckily, he doesn’t have to indulge in his hobby alone: the Evansville Audubon Society offers programs and field trips for anyone interested in birdwatching and learning about the area’s birds.
Sue Vernier, the society’s treasurer, says the group studies not just birds, but also the habitat, native trees, native flowers, and native insects upon which birds rely to survive.
“You must have a native habitat to support those birds,” she says.
According to the Southern Illinois native, the people who join the society’s programs range from “casual birders” to “very serious birders.” The EAS – a local chapter of the National Audubon Society, a major grassroots environmental organization – also has a Junior Birder program for children.
“When there are rare birds, people come out in droves,” Vernier says.
Boonville, Indiana, native Bob Meier, the society’s director of field trips since 2015, “started out as a car guy.” Meier moved to Evansville after he got married in 1999. He and his youngest son, Jesse, developed an interest in birding after seeing a program at the Mesker Park Zoo and Botanic Garden in collaboration with the World Bird Sanctuary, a not-for-profit near St. Louis, Missouri.
Around 2008, Meier began birding and credits local birder Sharon Sorenson with being one of his “biggest mentors.” Meier now frequently leads 25 to 30 people on seasonal migration walks with the EAS.
Looking at the size of birds, their beaks, feet, and how they fly and eat are just a few of the ways to identify a type of bird. Meier recommends starting out in the backyard and listening to the sounds of common birds, learning to identify their sounds first. In 12 years, Meier says he has heard more than 458 different bird species.
“The biggest thing was associating a call with a bird,” Meier says.
Vernier says she has always loved the outdoors, but she learned many new things through the programs offered at the EAS, of which she’s been a member since the 1970s. She says that as she gets older, she uses birding as a way to remember places she’s been. For her, birding and vacationing often go hand in hand, so she keeps a journal as a reference if she can’t remember a particular place or bird.
“I remember vacations by noting which bird I saw on that vacation,” Vernier says.
She always goes birding with her National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America and also has a National Audubon Sibley Field Guide to Birds. Both include drawings of birds and detailed descriptions as well as maps.
Speck says phone apps are even better than field guides, allowing people access to information about birds and help with their identification from their pockets.
The internet also provides a community for birders, he says, including many Indiana and national Facebook pages dedicated to birding, such as Evansville Area Birding. Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, created a database called eBird so people from all over the world can document their bird sightings.
“(Birding) gets you outside, active with the environment, and there is a lot of studying involved,” he says. “Trying to identify birds from a great distance, in poor light, hidden in foliage, or by sound alone is challenging. A lot of birds have very subtle sounds that are very difficult to learn.”
The Tri-State is an excellent birding area with many top viewing spots, including Howell Wetlands, Wesselman Woods Nature Preserve, Eagle Slough Natural Area, Burdette Park, and Angel Mounds.
A short-distance drive away are the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge and Management Area in Oakland City, Indiana, and Cane Ridge Wildlife Management Area in western Gibson County, where viewers can see the previously endangered nesting Interior Least Terns from an observation deck. Other regional spots are the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ Tern Bar Slough Wildlife Diversity Conservation Area, also in western Gibson County; Twin Swamps Nature Preserve in Posey County; and Blue Grass Fish & Wildlife Area in Elberfeld, Indiana.
Still, Vernier notes that which places are good for birding often depends on the season, as migratory patterns will determine where birds are throughout the year. Also important is knowing how to approach birds to make sure not to disturb them in their natural habitats.