SHERIDAN — As a middle-schooler, Elaine Olafson Henry wanted to take an art course; she desired to express herself creatively. However, her stepmother forbade it, considering the arts a frivolity.
Henry didn’t take an art class until many years later, delaying her creative potential for a few decades. Once she did, though, Henry’s passion and ability came to life. Now well into a wide-ranging career, Henry is, among other things, a decorated ceramics artist, curator, proofreader, and former professor and journal publisher.
Her life and career have been anything but straightforward. Henry didn’t receive her college degree until she was 46 years old, but less than a decade later, she was chair of a college art department. Now 73, Henry is pursuing a different line of study. She is enrolled in a program to receive her master’s degree in English through the University of Wyoming with the aim of becoming a better ceramics writer.
Her seven-plus decades have taken a circuitous route and been filled with loss, heartbreak, obstacles, affection and perseverance.
A path to education
Henry grew up in Southern California, but her childhood was the inverse of the luxurious, stress-free pop culture depictions. Her mother died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma when Henry was 4 years old. Seven years later, her father died from a heart attack.
Henry’s stepmother raised her through middle school and high school. She envisioned a far different life for her stepdaughter than what Henry wanted. The prohibition of an art course was one of many limitations placed on Henry. As a kid, the extent of her artistic endeavors involved copying faces from the newspaper comics.
Henry yearned to forge her own path, though she didn’t know how to initially.
“It was kind of the era of the Cinderella syndrome where you’d get married and you’d live happily ever after,” Henry said. “I wasn’t encouraged early on to get my education, but it always remained at the back of my mind.”
After high school, Henry moved often and had several dalliances with higher education but never attained a degree. Upon leaving California, she resided in Chicago, Ohio and Buffalo, among other places. Henry took a few art courses over the years and often spent time in art museums but never seriously pursued a specific line of study, still falling under perceived personal and societal limitations.
After separating from her first husband, Henry raised two daughters — ages 6 and 7 at the time of the divorce — largely on her own. Henry said that led to a maturation process and helped her gain a better understanding of herself. To provide for her family, Henry worked in marketing for an architectural engineering firm for several years.
Later, she moved to Gillette, eventually working as marketing director for the Chamber of Commerce and operating a trophy shop. While living in Gillette, Henry met her current husband, Richard Garber, who encouraged her to attend UW and pursue a degree.
Garber hailed from a family of strong women and said he immediately recognized that quality in Henry.
“There wasn’t a question in my mind that with the opportunity, she could do anything she wanted to do,” Garber said.
Likewise, Henry has appreciated her husband’s unwavering support and commitment over the years.
“He’s really been the wind beneath my wings,” Henry said. “I always say that everybody needs someone who thinks they hung the moon.”
With one another’s support, the couple moved to Laramie. Henry graduated in two-and-a-half years with a bachelor’s degree in ceramics from UW in 1992, the same year she married Garber. She stepped foot on the UW campus in the fall of 1990 at age 44 but said she quickly got used to being more than twice the age of most of her classmates.
In her current program, Henry is the oldest member of her class by about 20 years, but she rarely thinks about her age in relation to others. Henry also believes her experiences can bring a unique perspective to class, especially compared to someone a half-century younger.
Henry started her master’s program in summer 2017 and should graduate in May 2020.
She aims to write more critically about ceramics and is getting exactly what she hoped for from the classes so far. Her thesis involves a comparative rhetorical analysis of contemporary fine art criticism — such as painting and sculpting — and contemporary ceramics criticism.
Henry’s decision to go back to school in 2017 was aided in large part by technology. The program entails one online class per semester for a group of 14 students who also meet in Laramie for one week during summers. Students use Zoom video conferencing once per week for a three-hour online discussion, which Henry said makes it feel more like a regular course and lends legitimacy to online education.
Online courses should become more common in subsequent years and could play a key factor in helping Wyoming reach attainment goals set in 2017 by previous Gov. Matt Mead. The goals aim for 67 percent of Wyoming’s adults to have post-secondary credentials by 2025 and 82 percent by 2040. The number currently stands at around 48 percent.
Moreover, Henry utilized the fact that people age 65 and over can attend UW free of tuition, something that could help two-year schools like Sheridan College provide credentials to citizens interested in changing careers.
Key to recruiting students
Being a nontraditional student more than once and former college department chair who advised people considering returns to school, Henry has a unique viewpoint on higher education issues.
Henry taught at Emporia State University in Kansas from 1996–2007 and served as chair of the Department of Art from 2000–07. After that, she and Garber moved to Big Horn. Over the next decade, Henry served as editor and publisher of two international ceramics journals — “Ceramics: Art & Perception” and “Ceramics Technical” — before entering the master’s program at UW.
Henry thinks most people enroll in college too early without a specific plan for what to do afterward. As an undergraduate at UW, Henry had a much better perspective and focus about what she had to do during class.
Jentel Foundation Executive Director Mary Jane Edwards taught Henry at UW in the 1990s and served as her academic advisor. Edwards said Henry was a driven student in whom she recognized significant potential immediately.
As a professor, Henry referred to nontraditional students as curve-busters because most of them did extremely well in her classes, likely because they had a clearer sense of what they wanted to accomplish.
Henry said high schools and colleges need to work together more closely and align standards, streamlining the path to college credentials. Wyoming began doing this last year when several entities — the University of Wyoming, the Wyoming Department of Education, the state’s seven community colleges and the Wyoming Community College Commission — agreed to share some student information.
Henry said she would also make changes to teacher training processes. If a student is studying to become a teacher, Henry would like colleges to focus more on the subject matter and less on education training, perhaps separating them so a student spends four years learning the subjects and one year focused on teaching skills.
Henry believes college administrators must focus on improving education before prioritizing business concerns. The “student as customer” concept of higher education makes Henry’s blood boil.
“It gives you the impression that you pay your money and they open up the top of your head and dump in the product that you’re entitled to, and then you go on,” Henry said. “…When you start making it a product, it’s wrong. It defeats the purpose of an education … You can’t buy success. It’s all up to you.”
Sheridan College art department chair Rod Dugal has known Henry for more than a decade. They have co-curated local exhibitions and also worked together on college projects — including the genesis and utilization of the Whitney Center for the Arts — because Henry has chaired the Sheridan College art advisory board committee for the past several years.
Dugal said Henry serves as an excellent example for nontraditional students who think they may have started their art careers too late in life.
As a professor and department chair at Emporia State, Henry often talked with people considering a return to college. She encouraged them to try it, sharing the example of a middle-aged woman who wanted to change careers.
“I remember one woman came to me and said, ‘I’m 50, am I too old to go back to school?’” Henry said. “I just said, ‘In five years, you’re going to be 55. You can be 55 with a degree or 55 without a degree.’ That’s the way I feel about it. Age is immaterial.”
Balancing school, accolades
With more than a month off from college — UW classes resume Jan. 28 — Henry has spent recent weeks working on her upcoming exhibitions. She will be featured in the UW Art Museum from June through August as part of her current Wyoming Arts Council Fellowship.
She has an exhibition slated for next January at the Nicolaysen Art Museum in Casper. Henry also recently won a Wyoming Governor’s Art Award and will be honored with a dinner ceremony in Cheyenne in February. In March, she will receive an award from the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts, a 5,000-member organization of which she was president from 2002-04.
Henry’s future goals include improving her ceramics work and helping inspire and motivate others to pursue their passions. She occasionally gives speeches, both locally and internationally.
“That’s why I’m here on Earth,” Henry said. “If by being all that I think I can be, or as much as possible or continuing to reach toward that — if that helps other people, that’s what it’s all about.”
Henry has overcome hurdles throughout her life and maintained a passion for education. Officials across the state with the goal of increasing post-secondary credentials hope others will do the same.