Arts teacher Julia Zimmerman: Opportunity Partners in Plymouth

When fate brought Julia Zimmerman into the arts, she never dreamed she’d become an instructor for some of the most inspiring students around.
Art teacher Julia Zimmerman with student Denise.

Arts educator Julia Zimmerman dreams of one day opening a storefront art studio where people with disabilities can drop in and create art. A portion of the space would be used to exhibit and sell the items created by students.

But that dream can wait a few years. At the moment, Zimmerman is thrilled to be teaching a one-hour bimonthly art class to adult students at Opportunity Partners in Plymouth. The social service nonprofit that provides education and job skills training for people living with traumatic brain injury, developmental delay or other forms of disability hosts The Asplin Center in Plymouth, where Zimmerman teaches, one of several locations in the Twin Cities area.

Zimmerman is a self-taught artist and a hands-on learner. She enjoys tactile projects, like manipulating wire into different shapes. She also works with fiber and natural materials, such as stones from Lake Superior. The projects she shares with her students at Opportunity Partners reflect this hands–on sensibility. Zimmerman chooses activities for her class by searching the Internet for unique ideas, or by simply watching the students and seeing where their interests and abilities lie.

A 2012 Arts Access grant received by the Minnetonka Center for the Arts and a family connection led to Zimmerman’s work with Opportunity Partners. Minnetonka Center for the Arts awarded the grant to Opportunity Partners, which needed an instructor to teach the adult course. Holly Nelson, adult program director at Minnetonka Center for the Arts, received Zimmerman’s name from Ruth Mason, an arts teacher at Minnetonka who works with children and adults with developmental disabilities, and is Zimmerman’s sister–in–law.

“It was clear from the first time I spoke with Julia that she would be a perfect fit,” Nelson says. “She had the perfect combination of creativity, empathy and warmth.”
One of the more popular projects Zimmerman introduced involves creating sculptures out of very simple materials: a block of wood, nylon pantyhose and a coat hanger. She has taught the class since 2012, with a new mix of students every six months. And every semester, without fail, students ask to make the sculpture. Zimmerman attributes the project’s popularity to its visual appeal, as well as the fact that, once complete, the sculptures are displayed along a windowsill in one of the main hallways at the Asplin Center. Students become intrigued when they see the sculptures and want to make one as well.

Zimmerman recalls the first time she did the sculpture project with students: “A woman wanted to make a butterfly so we worked, and shaped her coat hanger to the shape of a butterfly. She worked really hard to paint it like a beautiful butterfly, then turned it around and looked at the back and its shape looked just like a dog,” Zimmerman says. “She had noticed this on her own, so she painted the flip side like a dog with a collar.” As an arts educator, Zimmerman finds moments like this gratifying, explaining that art is an abstract concept and requires a complex series of thoughts to get from A to B.

According to Ammy Norgren, a Learning Options instructor at the Asplin Center who has worked closely with Zimmerman in the classroom, Zimmerman’s energy and positivity is contagious: “[The students] are always so excited to see her and find out what projects they are going to be working on. The people we serve will engage with her from the moment she enters the building until it is time for her to go,” Norgren says. The Learning Options program is a collaboration among clients, service planners and instructors to determine the best opportunities matching needs and interests of individual clients.

Zimmerman finds the work incredibly fulfilling and is constantly in awe of her students. “My groups lack a sense of perfectionism that sometimes holds people without disabilities back,” she says. “In some ways their art is a very personal experience, yet their approach is also almost team-like with everyone cheering each other on. There is no competition, just everyone striving for the best for themselves as well as their peers.”

Minnesota State Arts Board

Julia Zimmerman’s teaching position at Opportunity Partners is funded by a learning grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board and coordinated in partnership with the Minnetonka Center for the Arts. According to Holly Nelson, distribution of the award among community partners that Minnetonka Center for the Arts would like to work with is still being considered, and it’s likely that Julia Zimmerman will continue to work with Opportunity Partners in 2014.


Did You Know? Opportunity Partners celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2013. 5489 Nathan Lane N.; 952.938.5511;