The former teacher says 'artistic unrest' prompted her to return to class as a student.
By AMANDA C. DAVIS
VINDICATOR TRUMBULL STAFF
WARREN -- Irene Was is painting a beautiful life for herself.
At 80, the Halsey Drive resident has no plans to settle in. Instead, as she says, "I wonder what things are like, so I just go out and do it."
Was will be surrounded by family and friends Sunday during a Mother's Day commencement at Kent State University, where she's spent the past six years working toward a bachelor's degree in art.
Was commuted to KSU in the 1960s and received a degree in education in 1968. She spent five years working in parochial schools in Youngstown before moving to Warren, where she taught in public and private schools more than 20 years.
A painting class at Trumbull Art Gallery spurred her desire to pursue formal training.
Went back: In 1996, Was went back to KSU's main campus in pursuit of the art degree with the support of her husband, Thaddeus, and their four daughters, eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
Her husband, who had worked for Thomas Steel, died three years ago. She took two semesters off, then decided to press on.
"He was supportive of everything I did," she said. "It's sad now because he was there for my first graduation."
Nancy Foster, a part-time art instructor at Youngstown State University, guided Was in a painting class at Trumbull Art Gallery about eight years ago.
"I admire what she's doing," Foster said. "She's really been an inspiration in my life. Every time I think I can't do something, I think of Irene."
Was took classes at KSU's main and Trumbull campuses. She moved into Engleman Hall in Kent four months ago to finish up her coursework. She lived in a deluxe studio apartment, took nine semester hours and worked on her final project -- nine 40-by-60-inch paintings, titled "Vibrations: Variations in Color."
Was could have entered the school's seniors guest program, which offers free tuition to senior citizens and allows them to take classes that aren't filled.
She decided instead to pay to ensure she would get into the classes she needed.
In the six years it took to finish, Was said, she maintained a grade-point average above 3.0 and received only two Cs.
Admiration: Craig Lucas, a KSU professor and coordinator of the school's painting program, called Was "delightful [and] wonderfully young."
He said she was able to find her niche in the program and described her as tenacious, stubborn, inquisitive and dedicated to lifelong learning.
"Students really admire her for going back to school at her age," he said.
Her home doubles as a studio and gallery. She paints in the basement and sun room and her work, including drawings and sculptures, is displayed throughout the house.
There are landscapes of Mosquito Lake, a painting of her husband, oil and acrylic paintings of flowers and other mixed-media creations.
She's happy as long as she's creating and she hopes to display her work locally. "I have no illusions about making it out there in the art world," she said.
One painting hangs in the oncology department of Forum Health Trumbull Memorial Hospital, donated in honor of her husband. She's won prizes for work shown at the Canfield Fair.
She hopes to share her art with Trumbull Art Gallery but said she's not afraid of rejection because "everybody sees things differently."
Was is one of 12 or 13 family members who have attended Kent State.
Sad about leaving: She's touched that her family will be with her in Kent on Mother's Day, but she's sad her days as a student are over -- at least for now.
Would she rule out taking other courses?
People have suggested she begin work on a master's degree, but Was said it's not something she'd consider unless she was 10 years younger.
She is, however, considering taking a drawing class, one day a week at Kent.
The experience of graduating at 80 is surreal for Was, who says her reasons for deciding to go back to school were "artistic unrest" and pursuit of growth.
"I put into practice what I learned as a teacher: You grow and develop all your life if you want," she said. "I'm not about to stop that now."