Alumni Profile • Ahleen Dekker Heynen '40
Never too old to learn

Ahleen Dekker HeynenAhleen Dekker Heynen ’40 thinks she’s probably always been interested in painting. Life, however, didn’t provide her with the opportunity to learn until she was 79 and living in Anchorage, Alaska.

Art class — which she loved — at her elementary school, Oakdale Christian in Grand Rapids, came around only once a week. At Grand Rapids Christian High School there was a beginning art class, but Heynen remembers doing no painting in it. Calvin, in the late 1930s, offered no art classes at all.

“I wouldn’t have had time anyway,” Heynen said. “I was up to my neck in music.” She began piano lessons at the age of five, voice lessons at 14. Before she was out of high school, she was driving to Michigan State University on Saturdays to study voice there. She took every music class that Calvin offered, and during her junior and senior years she taught music at her old elementary school.

So began a life steeped in music. Married to a minister, Heynen sang with choirs, chorales and smaller ensembles, often as a featured soloist, wherever they lived — from Michigan to California to New Jersey to Alaska. Before her children were born, and after they were grown, she taught music in schools. And she always offered private piano and voice lessons in her home.

Flower painting by Ahleen HeynenAnd she might still, at 87, be teaching private lessons, if not for the fact that her senior housing apartment, where she has lived for the past 10 years, is too small to accommodate students. There was time, finally, for the painter in Heynen.

And there was a teacher and a class. A friend invited Heynen to go with her to a watercolor class at the Anchorage Senior Center. Six months later, Heynen entered three paintings in an annual senior art show in the city. All three won blue ribbons. She has continued to win awards at senior arts shows and has also been honored in larger, juried shows open to artists of all ages.

“Sensitivity to color and to music is related, I think,” Heynen said. Two of her music teachers, she remembered, were artists.

For eight years now she has studied acrylic as well as watercolor, and she paints regularly in both media. She enjoys experimenting on her own — lately, with oriental wrinkle technique — and attends weekly painting and critique sessions at the senior center.

Heynen’s paintings — originals, prints, note cards — are for sale in gift shops in Anchorage, including a shop that she chairs in her senior housing cooperative, and at the Curves studio where she works out three times a week.

She paints landscapes, mostly, and birds and wildlife. She finds those in Alaska “gorgeous.” Also, she said, “Because our sun goes around the circle and is never overhead, the shadows are terrific.

“Life is so much richer since I started painting,” she added. “I can’t think about the end of life because there are too many things yet to paint.”