From left: Elaine Bailey, Barb Mosley and Gerry Nolan discuss the future of the Salt Creek Collective at the meeting on Jan. 17. The local group published an anthology of collected poems and artwork last year.

Corbin Parmer | The Democrat

A group of Brown County residents spent the last two years in their own sort of art colony, fusing the study of literature and poetry in the telling of their own life stories.

The group ultimately created an anthology of writing and art that was published in October last year.

Now they are looking to continue gathering and grow in number.

The Salt Creek Collective, as the group came to be named, currently consists of around 10 to 15 members, all residents of Willow Manor Senior Apartments.

There, in the summer of 2021, flyers announcing a series of writing workshops were sent to residents and added to the apartment’s community calendar.

The writing workshops were organized by Indiana University faculty and funded by the IU Center for Rural Engagement. The center utilizes IU Bloomington resources, faculty, staff, and students to collaborate with Indiana communities and address challenges that they face, according to its website.

Catherine Bowman, a provost professor at IU with an extensive background in poetry, has coordinated with the center to organize and teach many writing workshops in rural communities.

She had an idea for a writing program specifically for seniors, and a colleague from Nashville suggested Willow Manor as the place to go.

Bowman is the author of five poetry collections and her work has appeared in many literary magazines and journals, earning her several awards.

She was named provost professor at IU in 2020.

Last week Bowman said she has been “very involved” in doing community creative writing programs in libraries, community centers and schools outside of the university since she was in graduate school.

“In the last five or six years, I’ve been increasingly interested in wanting to celebrate peoples’ voices in the community, as a way to counteract certain frozen ideologies,” she said.

Bowman explained that writing programs can challenge ideologies by “bringing in more ambiguity,” which helps individuals with living with opposition be comfortable with contradictions in their lives, through telling our own stories.

The workshops at Willow Manor were designed by Bowman to have varied themes and topics — like memory, loss and celebration — that in some way related to what was going on in the world or in the participants’ lives.

The group met three times a month — once with Bowman and twice in “breakout sessions” with Maisie Aldrich, a creative coordinator and assistant to Bowman.

For each session, participants would read stories or poems that related to the particular theme of the day for the group to read together. Included with each reading was a writing prompt for members to expand upon what they had read and practice their own writing.

Participants were also encouraged to bring in what they had written outside of the workshop to share and discuss with the group.

Broadening horizons

Suzanne McKinney, member of the Salt Creek Collective, decided to join the writing group a month after receiving a flyer. She said she wasn’t sure if it was for her at first, because she didn’t consider herself a writer.

“When I first started, a lot of the others were more knowledgeable about writing and reading than I was, but Cathy made it very comfortable and gave us prompts and we just kind of grew into our writing, and I really started enjoying it and I didn’t want to miss any classes,” she said.

“I felt like I had started growing into writing, and I didn’t know that I had the ability.”

 Stephen Jonassen listens in during the Salt Creek Collective meeting on Jan. 17. The local group published an anthology of collected poems and artwork last year. Corbin Parmer | The Democrat

Another member of the collective, Stephen Jonassen, described a similar experience.

“I had given up on the idea of writing decades ago, when I was in my youth,” he said.

“But, I don’t know, the idea just intrigued me, so I thought I’d drop into these meetings to see what was going on, and I must say the bug bit, and I’ve been writing ever since.”

Jonassen, originally from Southern Indiana, has spent the majority of his life out of state. After joining the group and attending meetings, he said he began to hear stories from life-long Brown County residents that described generations past, and he was fascinated by the history.

He said being around the different people in the group, hearing their tales and studying writing with them, was inspiring.

“It broadened my horizons in a lot of respects,” he said.

Inspiration also struck Aldrich while she ran the show in the group breakout sessions, which she said came to her surprise.

“I went into this thinking I would be teaching them about poetry and different ways to get inspired, but I ended up being inspired by their stories and I felt like I learned a lot from them,” she said.

“I got so used to writing in classes, and just being with people telling their personal stories, and drawing meaning from that, was very impactful. It brought a lot of different perspectives, just being around a different age group.”

In August, the Brown County ChamberFest featured an open mic for a portion of the show, and the group decided to attend and read some of their work to the audience. From gathering together for this event, the name the Salt Creek Collective was born.

“They gave the most amazing reading that night. It was a packed house and people just loved their work,” Bowman said.

“They were just delightful and wonderful.”

The name references a natural feature of the Brown County area, which is named after its many brine springs.

Much like how brine and salty water is used for preserving foods, the members of the collective preserved their memories, poems and stories in their experiences together.

Towards the end of IU’s involvement with the group, Bowman requested that members collect their favorite pieces they have written since they began. She told them she wanted to publish an anthology to celebrate their work and share with their loved ones.

Bowman said some members had up to 40 pieces that they had written over the course of their time in the group, so going through and picking out favorites was tough.

After selecting their favorites and editing them, Aldrich compiled and digitized them. Many members also submitted visual art they had created as well to include in the book.

Bowman wrote the introduction for the anthology, which recounts the special moments the group shared, and how the experience has left a lasting impact. Each author included in the book also wrote a short bio, and these are gathered in the back of the book.

The IU Center for Rural Engagement funded the printing and distribution of the anthology. Around Thanksgiving, when the book was distributed, Bowman said the group gathered with their loved ones to celebrate and share.

“We had an evening where everyone dressed up and family and friends came and they read selections from it and talked about their experience. It was a celebration of the work we did together, and then hopefully an opening to continue working together,” she said.

“A lot of them thought they couldn’t write or didn’t have much to say, but their time in the group changed that. It really created a community, and the anthology was the material proof of that.”

 Gerry Nolan (right) and Barb Mosely (left) share ideas at the Salt Creek Collective meeting on Jan. 17. The local group published an anthology of collected poems and artwork last year. Corbin Parmer | The Democrat

Jonassen said it was encouraging to see his name in print, and his paintings fill both covers of the book.

“That’s a real, invariably, a little bit of a boost in one’s self-esteem,” he said.

“And the fact that what you’ve done is being appreciated by others … I think we all need a little jolt of that, upon occasion.”

Even though IU funding has ceased for the group, the Salt Creek Collective is continuing to work. They plan to keep meeting on a regular basis, and they wish for any and all to join.

“I just hope some others will get involved in our little group,” McKinney said.

“I had invited some, and they thought, ‘Oh no, that’s not for me,’ but that’s what I thought too.”

Learn more

Reach out to [email protected] with any questions. The next meeting is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 13 at 2 pm in the community room at Willow Manor Senior Apartments.