Art and Age Feed

Artist Carmen Herrera, at age 101, Shows at Major Museums

One of the most fascinating artists of 2016 has to be Cuban-born, American Minimalist artist Carmen Herrera.  Born in Havana in 1915, Herrera moved to post war Paris, eventually ending up in New York City in the mid-50's.  Her work was exhibited next to Piet Mondrian, and was considered equal to that of Barnett Newman and Frank Stella, but Herrera remained unnoticed, and undeterred. 

I discovered a wonderful 2010 interview by Hermione Hoby, titled "Carmen Herrera: 'Every Painting has been a fight between the painting and me. I tend to win.' The abstract artist on the man who saved her paintings from the bin, and being discovered at the age of 89."  

One of my favorite quotes is this:

"You don't decide to be an artist, art gets inside of you. Before you know it you're painting, before you know it you're an artist. You're so surprised. It's like falling in love."

But she has an acerbic wit and great insight, so I'm sure you'll find favorites of your own.

More interesting reads on this remarkable story of passion and resiliency include Carmen Herrera, 101-Year-Old Overnight Success, Gets Her Whitney Close-Up (with video), at CultureGrrl, written by Lee Rosenbaum, and this Dazed article, At 101-years-old, artist Carmen Herrera is NY’s one-to-watch, by Ashleigh Kane.

Overlooked for decades, Carmen Herrera remained true to her passion.  Though some of the reasons the art world ignored her work have since been resolved - women are not as invisible as they were 50 years ago - there are other obstacles that have little to do with gender or the quality of the work or the direction of the vision.  The take away here is truth to vision and belief in purpose, and not allowing age to be the excuse for no


Sources of Creativity

Being human, we relate to the world by placing ideas, and people, into slots that define them, and this is especially true when we discuss ideas about creativity and productivity in later life.  In most of the literature regarding the subject, intelligence and creativity are discussed in terms of cognitive function and how fast or slow the nerves translate information, as if creativity manifesting in ten seconds was better than that manifesting in thirty.  If you are discovering your creative side at an age where you already fear you are irrelevant, then this is a discussion we should all have.

What is an artist?

An artist is someone who has an idea.  The idea relates to how he experiences and processes internally the environment around him.  He then challenges himself to communicate this truthful insight outside of his own inner world, using a form that others can recognize.  This form is the medium used to translate the idea, relying upon the intellect, emotions and the senses - speech, written word, musical sound, mathematical equation, and visual or tactile stimuli – any form that can communicate meaning.  The idea can be universal or very singular.  Others may have the same or similar idea but the difference is often found in the way the artist communicates the nuances of his understanding.

If the idea feels half formed, the communication is often a means to discover the form. As the form becomes stronger, the artist may become more proficient at finding imagery or medium to express it effectively, or he may not.  And when this happens, often the artist feels confused or frustrated or emotionally ineffective.  The artist will strive to find the right medium to use, often starting one place and then moving on to another, or using multiple mediums until he finds that which most clearly communicates his ideas.

Many artists, early in their growth, find it appealing to use another’s choice of idea and communication style.  In many instances this works well, the way many voices in the choir carry the music in a powerful manner that is different than the power of a single voice.  But even then, if the artist does not feel some significant inner thought connection to the idea/insight, his effort will, while adequate, lack conviction.  Even if others do not recognize the lack of conviction, the artist will sense the emptiness in the work.  And then the artist has a choice, whether to stay or move on into uncertainty of outcome, whether to successfully repeat ideas that are not clear to his own thinking or to risk finding a different solution.  It may mean going back to the source and searching for that insight, clarifying the idea.  It may mean changing styles or mediums or directions. 

Years ago, I attended a workshop taught by two artists. One taught at MoMA and created large paintings in oil of figures swimming underwater before the idea became universal.  The other was a conceptual artist working in Europe, creating large installations.  Checking in on them more than a decade and a half later, the painter had changed mediums to videography and traveled the world creating a unique visual experience, while the conceptual artist was working with natural materials harvested, formed and assembled into delicate sculptures. 

We are never locked into what we are doing.  Mediums can change; styles, influences, and ideas are just fluid means of defining our inner truth and expressing it.  When we trap ourselves in tunnel vision, looking only at the inches of ground in front of our feet, we forget to look up and see the vast view that exists.   

But it always comes back to the source, to the idea and the degree of passion and skill to communicate it to those who will respond.  When a human being attempts to move that inner awareness into an outer concrete expression in form, he is what we currently label as an artist.

And being an artist is a description of who you are.  There is a difference between that and judging either yourself or others as to whether they are or are not an artist based upon outside criteria.  Validations from peers and strangers are a measure of the success of your communication, the appeal of the voice, the visibility, “newness”, “oldness”, in, out, ten minutes of fame aspects of life.  To chase after these things appeals to our human desire to reassure ourselves that we are effective in our expression, and it is equally responsible for creating doubt in our ability to be who we are – and that is an entirely different discussion we can have over the coming months.

Is Creativity an Entitlement?

I am an observer.  Even as a child I would rather watch than participate.  And my kids will tell you I can be obsessive in my observing.  If asked, they’ll drag out their favorite photographic proof: in sequence - view driving toward the tunnel, view in the tunnel, and view exiting the tunnel.  (I think there was another one called Mom falling down the side of the road in search of the perfect view, that that one mysteriously disappeared twenty years ago.)

I don’t necessarily believe I am obsessive. I’ve realized that before I became a painter, I was recording my observations in other ways.  Whenever we traveled, I would stare out the window, photographing every dip in the landscape that caught my attention, what I secretly called my “drive-by shootings” before that term took on such horrific meaning.  What I’m trying to point out here is that as artists we automatically observe the world, taking in every nuance and experience.  That is a remarkable gift, if you ask me.  We can look at artwork created in the past and participate, vicariously, in another existence.  A continuing thread, thousands of threads, a memory veil if you wish, that shows up in different forms in our own work.  An ongoing conversation.  Lives lived that are each unique and yet filled with common experience.

That might actually be the core mystery behind creativity.  And as Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her book, Big Magic, we don’t need anyone’s permission to express our creativity.  Yet artists often struggle with the belief that they do need permission.  If they don’t get that commission, or a gallery response to their portfolio, or accepted into a prestigious show, the sense of rejection can set the studio work back for months.  I speak from experience.  And it isn’t just the rejections, but the sense that we must do more important things (important to whom?) before we can justify stepping into the studio and paint yet another painting that won’t see the light of day. 

Again, I speak from experience. Due to unexpected circumstances, I returned to work three years ago, spending endless hours doing emotionally draining and exceedingly boring work and leaving my full-time studio dedication behind.  It paid the bills.  But the drip, drip, drip of the mundane did far worse for my sense of creative entitlement than the lack of money ever could.  That, my friends, can feel deadly.  It’s as if you don’t deserve the muse.  Pointlessness again creeps in and logical arguments grow proportionally.  With each step you move further away and it becomes harder to return, because, after all, now you are a full-fledged fraud calling yourself an artist when you can’t even get into the studio more than a few times a month. 

But I don’t think creativity cares.  Let me tell you a story.  Back when I was living the Real Artist Life I met a fellow artist who became a role model for me.  She was my age now when I met her over a decade ago, and during the 1970’s, while I was busy with young children and photographing tunnels, she was discovering her unique personal voice. In the 1990’s, while I was merely feeling restless, she was living in Mexico and Guatemala, creating works on handcrafted paper made of corn, perfecting her unique style reminiscent of Marc Chagall, and creating highly acclaimed work in her teaching studio. When we finally met, I idolized her while I was sure she hardly recognized me.  But one day I opened a wonderful email from her expressing admiration for my work.  Now, I am not attempting to connect myself to a famous person here, because this story does have an important lesson.  Perhaps a year ago, now, I was back visiting with my old gallery director, and I asked about this artist.  She was fine, my friend explained, leading me back into her shop and pulling out several canvases.  They were in various stages of the initial drawing or first few bits of paint.  My role model, she explained, was very happy, but she had forgotten how to paint.  She could not remember enough to finish the work.  I left that day with two of her sable brushes and several canvases, in various stages of development, which to this day and into the future will remain just as they are.  And that’s ok.

We do not have time to worry about whether we are entitled to or have earned the right to be in our studios creating pointless works of art.   Nothing is pointless, just as nothing is so earth shatteringly important that if it isn’t perfect or accepted by the world than it shouldn’t be done. It takes courage to resist the voices so eager to tell you no, not yet, this isn’t your time, me first.  But for many of us, we don’t get brave enough until we actually see the finish line of our own lives, and realize if not now, then probably never.

But late-blooming bravery is ok too. Because the way I see it, when I paint, I am doing it for myself, recording, exploring, analyzing my experiences as I work my way through life.

Which is really the only way I want to live my life.


The Importance of Gravitas

Back in 2001, when I began to study art seriously, I asked how gravitas could be achieved in painting. The answer differed depending upon which teacher I asked. Some said it was subject matter. Others based their assessment upon technique. Still others said only the Old Masters achieved gravitas. None of these answers were particularly helpful. While they skirted around the question, no single point of view could explain gravitas, because gravitas is a word that attempts to define emotional connection.

Over the years I have come to believe that gravitas relates most specifically to how well the artist can transform an emotional idea into its visual equivalent. Paul Gauguin is quoted as saying that Degas’s nudes were “chaste. But his women in washtubs! ...just the way it is at home.” This is the difference between illustration and connection.  When we recognize in a work of art the emotion, the sensation, as something familiar, known - this is connection.  And if I were to summarize the descriptions found in books, in lectures from a few Masters, and the student-artists who work toward the same goals I have as a continuing student-artist, I would say that the primary attribute of gravitas is aesthetic conviction - another vague term that doesn't answer questions but raises new ones.

We all set the same goals, to do a better job than the day before. Sounds easy, and on most days easy wins out and the painting is a failure. But we still pick up the brush and try again, chasing the possibilities, as well as the joy. Gravitas, or aesthetic conviction, becomes the goal toward which we struggle, and the thing we don’t see is that our contemporary context also plays a role. The everyday world full of work demands, traffic delays and constant irritation bear little connection to the contemplative world of the artist. We cannot retreat to the ivory tower of the studio. Our work must relate to the society in which we live, to the people who might view it, and that pool of individuals is so vast and so complex it’s overwhelming to think about aesthetic conviction. Whose aesthetic do we appeal to?  This person's, that one, those over there?

So we have no real choice. We must develop our own conviction regardless. And when I paint better than I think I can, I recognize the underlying motive. I am not thinking about being “successful,” or appealing to the public, or a jury, or even trying to make a painting that is better than the one I did yesterday. I am only thinking that this painting is the painting I need to do.

Research demonstrates that Masters achieve their highest creativity either after years of creative endeavor, or through the furious passion of youth. Both speak to the need for technique as well as emotional investment – the soul of the work. Where younger artists might be more impulsive and risk-taking, older artists are equally passionate with greater self-acceptance and depth of understanding. This is the research saying it, not me. But I do know that without one – technique - you cannot communicate the other – emotional communication.  This is true regardless of age.

In my experience, it has taken only moments to understand some artistic concepts, but years to understand them enough to begin to put them into practice. And even now I do not fully comprehend. But the idea that I cannot hope to create something worthwhile if I cannot use the visual language required, remains a constant. To that end, this is what I have found to be important:

  • Decisions are based on thinking, and thinking is based on knowledge, so there can never be an end to learning or practice or experimentation. You must know what you can do with the materials, how to do it to best effect, and why you want to do it. Only then can the artist hope to communicate the qualities of human emotional experience through paint. As for taste, it is a concept that changes with time, but sensitivity is different. An artist who strives for sensitivity becomes expressive, different from the rest.
  • It’s easy to choose a subject to paint. It’s imperative to know what you are painting.  In the book, How I Paint: Secrets of a Sunday Painter, Thomas D Buechner (1926 - 2010), a painter's painter who became the the director of the Brooklyn Museum, has given one of the best descriptions of artistic conviction I have ever read.  He describes his painting of an angular, awkward ten-year-old boy named Ian: "He is the subject, but the painting is really about uncertainty, about not knowing the future...the subject was chosen for a specific purpose, to serve as a metaphor for this confusion, which influenced the pose, colors, shapes, and textures. In other words, Ian was the message."

But this is my list, and it is not complete. Nor is it as important as the one you make for yourself.  Stuart Davis (1894-1964) is quoted as saying, "The act of painting is not a duplication of experience, but the extension of experience on the plane of formal invention." Such is the purpose of art.  It is what we know.  It's the getting there that is hard.


Has Art Become a Spectator Sport?

If the past fifteen years have revealed anything, it is that I am “not in Kansas anymore.” Between the ageist view that art is the “deterrent to dementia,” and the proposal that legitimate art must be raised to a Ph.D. level, older artists are caught in the middle.  Suddenly upended with new expectations, we must evolve, while struggling with the fear of marginalization, lost potential and artistic irrelevance.

As an artist who did not begin the practice until the age of fifty, I find this idea challenging.  Some academics suggest that, with age, the artist becomes more contemplative and less competitive.  I have not found this to be true.  Perhaps I am not old enough.  Perhaps you are not old enough either, and that in itself is a good thing.  But it is also unsettling, the “not in Kansas” thing.  Traditional pathways for upward mobility have disappeared, replaced by something else entirely.  Where there used to be collaborative gate keepers, we are now considering the role of advertising and juried exhibitions in the struggle for visibility.  And the public perception - as Robert Storr says, colleges have for decades promoted the idea that art plays an “accessory role” to the “higher realms of mathematics and science.” Forget centuries of history, theory or abstract narratives.  Can you produce a video, or entertain the public?  One weekend, dozens of artists, all furiously turning out artwork – who couldn’t love that?  And this brings us back to the idea of Art as a Spectator Sport.

I have nothing against plein air events or videos of any kind. In fact the resurgence of Plein Air Painting as a legitimate genre has been a boon for some artists and the collector base supporting them.  I’m talking about those who paint part time because they have to work and worry about fading away on the fringes of the “relevant” art world.  But change, you will recall, is the only thing that stays the same.  The sudden abandonment of the French Academies following the immense popularity of Impressionism destroyed more than one artistic life.  Look at the millions of visual images with the capacity to catch and hold your attention.  Art still holds power, but that’s not the problem.  The problem is more akin to access.  Over the centuries, access was controlled, the way water is controlled through dams and culverts, pipes and faucets in kitchens.  There was always someone who regulated the flow, and those who received it valued the consistency and appreciated the benefits. No bad water in the glass.  When you wanted a drink you knew what to do: turn on the faucet, fill the glass.

Now take away the control.  Visual artifacts are like rain, falling everywhere, millions of drops that vary by size and velocity but, well, essentially are the same thing and free for the taking.  There is no way to describe the feeling of being invisible while compelled to be a visual communicator, which is exactly where the “Art as Spectator Sport” mindset puts you.  Are you falling for that?  Is it any different than the research that proves “doing art” puts off the onset of dementia for about ten years, essentially diminishing the work of thousands of artists over the age of sixty to the equivalent of doing cross word puzzles?  No, if you accepted the offer to become an artist then you accepted the rules.  You don’t do it for recognition.  You don’t do it for money.  Only you know what – or who – you do it for. 

Along with mindset, there are a few other things of importance.

Training can take years, but that is normal and in fact training never ends.

Teachers can’t often teach what you want to know, or even what you need to know, but that does not mean you don’t need a teacher now and then.

The act of creating is more than meditation, but only if you are also filled with awareness of the unpredictability of insight.  If it is only meditation, then it is self-occupation.

No matter how much practice, without knowledge of formal training and informed self-critique, then practice is just meditation, also known as self-occupation.

And this quote from Ann Lauterbach:

You cannot plan for the new, since by definition it arrives out of the conditions that give rise to it. Now, on the other hand, also arrives out of the conditions that give rise to it, but instead of these conditions being akin to the prow of a ship (the Great Ship New), they are more akin to the buoyant waters that hold the ship up, in which horizontal surface (space) and vertical depth (time) are in a mutable, ambient relation—the relation, we might say, of scale. Where your particular ship is on the waters of Now is what you need to discover when you are making a work of art.


Where the Lauterbach quote originated, and what I am reading:  Art School (Propositions for the 21st Century), edited and with an introduction by Steven Henry Madoff.  

There is no way to avoid controversy if seeking enlightenment. 



Keeping the Vision - Why Creativity and Artistic Ability are Not the Same Thing

One of the interesting things I have noticed is that people often lump creativity and artistic ability into the same subject.  They are definitely not the same thing.  Creativity is often measured by how many uses one can conjure within a limited time frame for a single object.  This is often referred to as keeping a child-like frame of mind, ruling nothing out.  How many uses for, say, a can with several holes punched in the bottom?  That creative child might come up with all kinds of answers: an apartment complex for spiders, a way to capture only the largest raindrops, as the smallest ones will fall right through.  Don’t get me wrong: creativity is a wonderful thing.  I do not discount this.  Creativity is not always wasted on youth, but the scientists can tell you that as people age their creativity, as measured by their answers, often declines.

I am not a researcher.  But I read the products of their research.  And I might as well warn you, I often don’t agree with their interpretations.  Oh, I don’t dispute the data or the results of numerous test subjects, but I think they often test for the wrong things.   Perhaps someone past age 60 can’t come up with 25 imaginative uses for a can with holes punched in the bottom, but perhaps, equally, it isn’t because he is losing his creativity but is evaluating the potential usefulness in each invention.  Age does bring with it some economy of effort, whether good or bad depends upon the age of the evaluator.  But this is why I often look at research about age and creativity with a jaded eye; it’s so easy to be clinical about the effects of age when you haven’t attained the honor of being old.

Artistic ability is much harder to define.  Why is this, you might ask?  We all understand when we see it, we know it.  The Mona Lisa.  John Singer Sargent.  Name one example of artistic ability that comes to mind, and as much as you might love them, the drawings that your children did in second grade are not likely to be on that list.  No, artistic ability relates to something much harder to measure or define than keeping a child-like attitude.  There used to be rules, then there were none, and now there are rules again, but no one really agrees on what they might be, which atelier you belong to, or groups you associate with, or magazine you examine cover to cover, or which gallery or corporate entity supports your work.   In this age of self-identified artists -  an outgrowth of Modernism in the legitimacy of the no rules self-expression approach -  everyone’s an artist.  We feel the intense desire, even if we don’t understand the why, or how.  

Something drives us.  I hear from so many artists who say they feel compelled to do this – but become frustrated when they can’t identify what that means.  What happens when we reach the age of 50? Certainly not the kind of identity crisis that used to be the red convertible and a comb-over hair style: no, this is something much deeper, and worthy of our introspection.  You paint.  You create music.  The time when you are immersed in your inner world stops as you seek what you can’t define.  Is it only art if it exists in the commercialized, corporate-controlled version that has established the careers of those who are granted entry?  Is it only art when there is economic benefit?  Does art require some societal value to exist, or has the function and social value of art taken on a new role? 

I am like you.  I am torn between these questions of where to place value and needing to do the work.  So I do the work.  Like the reed in the river, I bend to the need to put paint on canvas and try to find that expression of truth.   Perhaps that is why we feel compelled.  Not out of a desire for self-importance, but a need to identify some truth for ourselves…not narcissism, staring down at our own reflection in the pond, but a quest to capture a moment…to hold it...keep it for someone else. 

“The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.”  -- Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

When Age and Art Converge

Aging is an inevitable part of our personal experience, on both a physical and social level.  How we perceive our ability to express creativity can open us up to new experiences. 

As a mature artist entering the field later in life, I have faced a common insecurity: can I realistically achieve my goals or is it too late?

My position is that you can.  There is no research to indicate that creativity functions differently with age: if anything, it increases.  Where physical stamina may decrease, experience and perceptions allow us to make artistic connections with more ease than a younger artist.  If there is one thing that works to our disadvantage, it is time.

Because the mature artist does not have the 30 or 40 years required for some accomplishments, it becomes important to focus on what, realistically, we can achieve. I advocate a business-like approach, because goal setting, implementing strategies, and establishing routines are business oriented.  But art is unlike any other business.  It can be subjective and competitive.  Despite the internet, there are still powerful gatekeepers and some geographical dependency. Your motivations must be strong to weather the inevitable discouragements and continue with your creative process.  Knowing what your aspirations are will increase your ability to focus on the activities that will get you to your goals.  But your business orientation ends there, or at least assumes a lesser importance compared to the living of your art. 

We are all different as artists, and different, too, in our desires. The time available to us will play a role, but we can’t accurately predict what we will achieve until we try.  This is not a new idea.  While attending a workshop recently, I listened to Rose Frantzen echo similar thoughts in response to the question, what is beauty?  She answered that she didn’t know ahead of time what was beautiful – that she couldn’t always see it until she tried to paint it. 

It was through the act of exploration that the beauty was discovered.

It is through your artistic exploration that a way of living is discovered.

If this way of living can also be labeled an art career, then many artists will be satisfied.

But if it only produces beauty, connects humans in a meaningful way, contributes to the culture, or joins in with a long conversation by artists about their experiences going back to the beginning of time without any of the financial or prestigious recognitions – well, that’s pretty impressive, too. 

Your results will ultimately be defined by you. 


Two Types of Artists: Which One Are You?

We have all heard the "Young Geniuses and Old Masters" description of artists, epitomized by Picasso and Cezanne.  The distinction was based on the age when the artist peaked, producing his best work and contributing his greatest contribution to art.

But author David W. Galenson presents this concept from a different - and far more insightful - viewpoint.  Galenson's book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity, defines the two major differences not through age, but through the way the artist approaches the work. 

The significant - and perhaps most valuable - ideas that Galenson presents are these:

  • The Young Genius artist works from a Conceptual foundation, forming his idea, making numerous preparatory sketches, color studies, and compositional studies before starting the work that he sees clearly in his mind.   What defines him is the method of working out conceptual ideas first - where the real creative work is conducted.  The resulting painting is merely a visual record of what the artist imagines, executed with the confidence of one following a map. Artists working Conceptually include Picasso, Gauguin, George Seurat, Pissarro, Matisse, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, and Roy Lichtenstein.
  • The Old Master artist works from an Experimental foundation.  He does not have a preconceived vision of what he wants to produce, and often changes directions in the course of working because he sees something new or exciting.  He is searching for something visual which cannot always be defined, and is prone to reworking, feeling dissatisfied with the work, working intuitively, and reworking the same subjects in series.  He seldom feels a painting is finished, which is why the Experimental Artist may rarely sign the work.  Artists working Experimentally include George Innes, Cezanne, Monet,Van Gogh, Degas, Frankenthaller,  Pollack, Rothko, among others.

The insight I most appreciated from Galenson came from his reversal of the traditional viewpoint of the young vs old creativity cycle.  He effectively moves the discussion away from the age at which an artist produces his greatest work to the method by which he works to achieve it, with some fascinating research and art historical information to support the position. 

If you are curious about Galenson's research and interested in discovering more fully about the life cycle of your personal style of creativity, this book might be of interest to you.  The more we understand about our personal creative life cycle, the more powerful our experience will be. 

Art, Philosophy, and the Curly Willow Tree

We spent the weekend cutting down a curly willow tree that had grown too large for the space in our back yard.  As each branch came down I mourned the loss of this tree I loved and often painted, yet realized that the grass needed sunlight, the foundation of our house needed to be free from evasive roots, and the risk of heavy winds eventually toppling the tree into the neighbor’s yard required the removal.  We stacked the curled green branches in a corner of the yard in preparation for the trip to the landfill – and by the following morning the small sparrows and finches that had wintered over in the neighbor’s evergreens had moved into the thicket, thrilled with their new home. 

Now I will have to worry about the wildlife and clearing it away before they start building nests and laying eggs. 

This is life, though, leaving one phase behind, finding new purpose, moving on.  As an artist, I often feel the disappointment of unfulfilled expectations, and my career aspirations compete heavily with realities of life.  In this way I am like the curly willow serving only one purpose, that of shading the yard and providing still life material – instead of seeing the potential beyond one set path.  Understanding this keeps my spirit alive, my zest for following my own artistic aspirations.

I have been reading the book George Inness: Writings and Reflections on Art and Philosophy.  Among the ideas that motived Inness this one stood out: “Indeed, Inness would, in image and word, become a vocal advocate for creating original works of art that would, as he put it, not ‘instruct’ or ‘edify’ his viewers but ‘awaken an emotion’ – any kind of emotion – in them.”  Regardless of his sometimes unorthodox painting methods, or his connections to Swedenborgian religious theory regarding color and numbers, Inness was able to communicate the emotional experience of the landscape that has stood the test of time. 

For me, the important message from Inness, and from other notable landscape artists through the centuries, is that the art of landscape does not lie solely in the craftsman’s ability to apply paint, or the draftsman’s ability to render an accurate tree, or the plein air painter’s ability to turn out a pleasing painting under time and weather pressure. 

It lies in more difficult territory.  It is the same elusive ability of the poet to articulate beauty.  It, perhaps, has a deeper connection to philosophy than to the rules of composition or color theory.  As a practicing, growing, struggling artist I work constantly to achieve these goals, moving from the fundamentals like color charts, to studying composition, to thinking about “what do I want to say” – just like you, just like nearly every other artist out there striving to reach their own goals. 

And it seems to me that these days it’s harder to do for artists over the age of fifty, where the current attitude can be just as disheartening as those attitudes from years ago.  Where the “women are not successful because they give up their art in return for nurturing their families” has been replaced by “older artists need to ‘do art’ to keep their brains healthy and functioning.”  Where the well-meaning assumptions from the status quo are that we are victims of our personalities and our biology, that art is either something we easily trade off or pick up to solve some other “more important” problem. 

Does that idea make you mad?

Weather we are Sunday Painters, or avid competitors, whether we seek recognition or prefer humble isolation, creating Art for the artist is of no less importance than music for the musician, or a novel for the writer. 

And that is the real message of the curly willow.

No matter what form it takes, your need to create and to share the magic with others, will shelter you, whether the branches are high, waving in the wind, or low, protecting the nests. 



Late Bloomers : What Above Ground can tell us about Art, Age, and Experience

One focus of this blog is to share information about artists as they age. 

In part this is to refute the idea that older artists lose value as they age, but also to argue against the belief that adults who pursue art in their "retirement years" do so for inconsequential reasons. 

To dismiss the artistic investigation by an adult over fifty, and certainly over sixty or seventy, as “pastime activity” does a disservice to those who put the idea of an “art career” on hold for decades due to circumstance, obligation, location, or immaturity.

And I reject that argument. 

I recently discovered the Research Center for Arts and Culture, supported by the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging, and their 2006 Research Report titled ABOVE GROUND: Information on Artists III: Special Focus New York City Aging Artists.  Dr. Robert N. Butler, President and CEO of the International Longevity Center, explains that “Not only does this study combat the misperceptions of aging, it sheds new light by the unique solutions artists embrace in living… It shows them as productive, self-aware and savvy. And it provides some new ways of thinking about all of us as we age.”

This study reveals some interesting facts: for instance, the experience of being a professional artist (as in a life-long commitment to art) seems to be universal.  We do not need to be living in a major art market to share this aspect of being an artist.  But I would add that the requirements of researching specific populations create an unintended bias, in this case one against the Late Bloomers, those who meet the definition of being a serious artist – life-long pursuit, educational accomplishments, exhibition records, sales, and members of artistic communities – but when asked the questions “When did you start and where do you live?” we can only answer “a decade ago and we live everywhere."

It is important to note that the artists in this study were all visual artists living in specific areas of New York City, between the ages of 65 and 91, who self-identified as professional artists, answering questions such as I consider myself an artist, the main body of my activity is some form of art, and I have a demonstrated record of exhibition, performances, installations, publications or other evidence of my art. 

Here are some of the more interesting facts that caught my attention:

  1. Artists are very invested in their careers, which are not seen as traditional experiences but circumstances that provide a high level of life satisfaction.
  2. More female artists than male experienced interruptions in their careers.  Women also reported more gender bias (not surprisingly men reported none), while all artists reported experiencing discrimination based on age and choice of medium.
  3. The core experience of being an artist is universal, with less satisfaction regarding critical review, career opportunities, and income, and high levels of satisfaction from personal autonomy and validation as an artist.
  4. Artists never retire; they work in their studios daily.
  5. Artists rank higher in Life Satisfaction Scales than the rest of the population, even as they age.
  6. Social networks – and daily communication within those artist-to-artist networks – are important to productivity.
  7. A majority of artists continue to sell their work, but income from art remains a small percentage of overall income.

I often receive emails from readers wanting Career Advice.  And this is what I have learned: even though this blog has a subtitle of "developing an art career after fifty,"  your Art Career is not likely to meet the definition of a career in our youth-oriented, income-measured, and single-goal-oriented culture.  At times the artist’s life can be difficult to sustain economically.  It is not easily justified to others who expect traditional cause-and-effect results. And it is more likely to be a broad, multi-dimensional, life-long experience that is highly satisfying to self-aware, productive, and flexible individuals who cannot imagine living without producing their art. 

Most of us consider this a fair trade-off. 


“How are you doing today?”
97-year old visual artist: “Well, I’m above ground.”

                                                —IOA III Aging Study

“Art is the only thing that’s left in the world.”

                                                —Homeless mixed media artist, age 72, one of the many quotes from Above Ground




after thoughts:  When my mother passed away a few years ago I received a folder containing all of my report cards, from kindergarten to the end of high shcool.  I was an average student, but consistently, I received an A in art from every teacher, every year.  My parents were unimpressed.  I took my cues from them, and wandered in the wilderness until I grew up at age fifty. 

Starting early does not tell you whether a person has the talent to be a successful artist: it only tells you that they grew up in a supportive, enriching, artistic environment where they were mentored early and encouraged to achieve their goals. 

It can also take you a decade to reach the level of professional accomplishment that puts you in the game, and another decade to begin to see significant results. 

That leaves you a few more decades to play with, give or take your starting point.