After my last letter about art skills persisting after dementia has set in, there was another bonanza of material in this inbox. A dozen or so wrote to say that grandma can’t recognize the grandchildren — but she can still paint. Others, like Allan Soffer, mentioned “the spontaneous, non-thinking process we call ‘the zone,’ followed by a period of examination and corrective activity.” Artists wondered if this corrective activity was part of the main brain that goes, or the creative one that lingers.
Going by my own experience and the observations of others, serious artists can be pretty involved in their art. Living with and troubleshooting their work on a daily basis, they become hyper-focused. Another subscriber, Leslie Hoops-Wallace, observed “When working on a painting, everything else seems to take a back seat — the brain is too occupied with the painting process — and decides not to sweat the small stuff.” This thought gives a clue to the persistence of creativity. In a possessed state, the creative mind may begin to find the regular stuff — like tidying up or recognizing the grandkids — of secondary importance.
Fact is, at one time or another in an artist’s productive life, the brain-easel axis can actually take over and become the main event. Depending on your point of view, this is either unfortunate or fortunate. Our anecdotal correspondence seems to confirm that persistence of creativity may be simply the result of prior focus.
Something else came out of these emails — there’s a big difference between, say, the composing of music and the performing of music. In performance of the elderly, motor skills and muscle memory may have weakened. Brain function itself has often slowed down. The elder composer, painter or writer, on the other hand, may just have to take more pains to get it right. Several correspondents wrote: “My work is taking longer now because I’m fixing more things.” This indicates to me that older artists might be “fussier.” Maybe fussiness is a characteristic of age, just as audacity can be a characteristic of youth. Come to think of it, a few workshoppers told me that their main goal was to help mature creators become audacious again.
Ironically, some older artists reported having the “I don’t care anymore” attitude. This can go either way — sloppy work, or enhanced creative abandon. Flamboyant age trumps conservative youth.
PS: “Age breeds caution and a yearning for security. Youth invites risk and challenge. As we grow older it becomes important to be able to balance our sensibilities with our curiosities.” (Elizabeth Azzolina)
Esoterica: There were lots of opinions. Georges Braque was quoted: “With age, art and life become one.” Artists welcomed the idea that their talent and capabilities might prevail after other joys had failed. Some pointed out that a lot of creative persistence has to do with the honouring of a perceived truth. In the words of Pablo Casals (not a subscriber), “To be young all your life, you need to say things to the world that are true.” Then there’s the bittersweet “running out of time” problem. On his deathbed Edgar Degas (another who has not yet subscribed) was reported to have said, “Damn — and just when I was starting to get the hang of it!”
Park your rocking chairs
by Jean Morey, Ocala, FL, USA
This past Sunday I graduated from Eckerd College with a major in creative writing. I turn 80 on the 29th of June. I remain audacious in my pursuit of recognition and expression of the value of all people of every color and gender. I have been expressing this in my children’s book illustrations since the early ’60s and now can write my books with confidence as well. It is a myth that people get less capable as they get older. Too many people buy into this idea and just fold. Not my approach. I will now go for my MFA at Savannah College of Art and Design this Fall and maybe on for more anthropology and archeology after that. It helps to be computer literate. I say, park your rocking chairs, we have too much that this generation need to learn from us to give up now.
Losing it at work
by Marsha Elliott, Covington, OH, USA
I’ve been a sign artist for 42 years and, while I can still do the creative part of design/layout with seemingly no problems, here of late my boss gets on my case about all the mistakes I make when making out a job ticket, such as omitting bits of information, transposing numbers, etc. It really comes across as my not paying any attention to what I’m doing. I, myself, am painfully aware of this “slipping” and I don’t like it. I took up watercolor painting 3 years ago so I plan to continue with the creative process long after my day job has ended!
Painting becomes a chore
by Charlotte Lyon, Amsterdam, Holland
I have worked as a painter now for 30 years with relative success, but over the past 5 years the work has become laborious. The pleasure I get from it minimal. The reason I think is the demand from the galleries I work for always wanting the same sort of subject matter, i.e. what sells. I need to feel that people like my work and a check in the hand is always a sign of appreciation. But at what cost? I have tried to take time out and work on different styles and medium but somehow my work always ends up going in the same direction. So my question is: Is style something unique to our selves or can we develop different ones without it being too calculated and loosing that natural flow if you see what I mean. I want so much to love my work again but at the moment I dread going into the studio. It has become a chore.
Keeping on creating
by Caroline Jasper, Rotonda West, FL, USA
My mother, well into her 80s was forgetting everything rapidly. Dementia was overcoming her mind at a steady pace. However, she constantly knitted dolls, making them up completely from imagination… each unique character with different colors, different hair, dressed in patterned clothing, accessorized with hat, purse, shoes, etc. No two alike. Meanwhile she often could not find names and at times the words to express her thoughts. Always creative and artistic, these strengths held out longer than many details in her memory. Now nearly 91, she sadly no longer knits. I’m counting on being able to keep painting, even if I eventually lose my mind.
by Cristina Monier, Buenos Aires, Argentina
I will be 72 in November. After years of painting realism I started trying my hand at geometric abstraction. I have finished 4 paintings and sold two of them and I have had a wonderful reception to my work, both from buyers and galleries. I am slower on my feet and more forgetful but the painting gets better and that is all I ask of life.
Early knowledge remains intact
by Karen Quinton, Toronto, ON, Canada
I had a very elderly piano teacher who was absolutely convinced that her neighbors were trying to steal from her and poison her, and that the cleaning lady was having affairs upstairs; etc, etc. However, she taught sometimes and read the New Yorker and other papers to keep up with artistic events. When you spoke with her about the musical events of the world you would never know that she was literally living in fear for her life. Only those close to her were aware of the dementia. The former famous students who called on their way through town had no idea. It is frequently observed that what you lose in Alzheimer’s and dementia is the most recent learning. The art and other things which which have been with you since youth remain intact.
Truly creative work comes late
by Alberto Valentini, The Hague, Netherlands
If one’s work is not changing, hopefully for the better with old age, then one is not being true and honest and is more attached to a concept of expectations. Artists whose work doesn’t mature, like a good wine, become boring.
Consider J. M. W. Turner, for example. He made great works in his youth, won all kinds of recognitions, but not until he upset everyone with his unique way of painting, and that controversial canvas, (recording an historical fact that was hard for the English Aristocracy to swallow). As old age set in, and whatever else happened to him, not till then did he make sublime, highly creative work charged with an energy strong enough to shift galaxies.
Having a great time
by Paul Austin, West Drayton, England
Age has advantages when youth departs. For many years I have felt restrictions on my talents — the lack of money to purchase materials and, above all, the shortage of time, in my case due to running a small business. These restrictions have prevented me from truly committing myself to anything other than pencil or pen & ink… but now? Semi-retirement has given me the freedom, and a few pounds, to extemporize as never before. And the results have been amazing. All the frustrated desire to break away from the restrictions has given me a completely different outlook and I feel like a twenty year old student, straining at the leash. I truly feel, at seventy, that the world is once again my ‘oyster’ and, even as I write, I am impatient to pick up my brush and palette and enter my little private world of expression and renewed experimentation. Boy, am I having a great time!
Lost track of time
by Hap Hagood, Clover, VA, USA
I can totally relate to Leslie Hoops-Wallace’s comment. When I’m carving a block of stone or wood the rest of the world ceases to exist. I had been carving all day and everything was falling into place perfectly. So, after taking a break for supper, I decided to go back to my studio and carve for a couple hours more. Again, I was really rolling, everything materializing perfectly as I carved, when all of a sudden the light changed in the room. I looked over at the window, and to my surprise, it was first-light. I had carved all night, without realizing it.
Lost facility is overcome
by Mary Jane Q Cross, Newport, NH, USA
I am 55, a painter. I lost the ability to control a brush 14 years ago. I had taken a popular drug that produced a severe right-sided permanent tremor. Five and a half years later I relearned how to paint with my fingers, after nearly 20 years of a previously successful career. Long comeback, but know so much more about what the brain really can do. Even when I could not paint, I painted on the inside. It is a delight to still be able, after all this time, to do it again well on the outside, and not waste the precious time that is left.
Taking breaks from productivity
by Gregory Packard, Montrose, CO, USA
Josh Waitzkin, a chess prodigy and today a world champion martial artist, discusses in depth in his book The Art of Learning, A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence that those of us passionate souls with extreme intensity need more than anybody to learn to take real breaks between our periods of intense engagement. He describes learning the necessity of breaks during his chess matches as a kid where he would face grand masters with such intensity at the beginning of a tournament that although he would win the match he would then have nothing left for the remaining matches in the tournament, and the rest of the tournament would be filled with mistakes and disaster. Real breaks from our art, such as a walk, a play with the kids, meditation — any kind of true release is critical to then be able to sustain high-level engagement for the long run. I have found this to be true with painting in that solutions and creative insight often surface when I’m relaxed and not even thinking about painting. When I have sufficient breaks, painting itself becomes the ultimate release for the stresses of life that it should be. I wonder if, in the bigger picture of life, people who have a disposition of passion and intensity who do not learn to find regular releases are more prone to become afflicted with diseases such as dementia, depression, Parkinson’s, etc.
by Sandra Merwin, MO, USA
How did we get from creativity to dementia and finally to generalizations about aging? “The elder composer, painter or writer, on the other hand, may just have to take more pains to get it right” (quoted from your letter). These types of anecdotal generalizations contribute to a stereotyping of aging. People are individuals and are usually complex, even when they are old people. Individuals have different personality characteristics which are very pronounced when we are toddlers and teenagers, and may also be evident when under pressure or as we age. The perfectionist will probably become more of a perfectionist with age, the intuitive artist will probably paint more intuitively, the cautious artist will become more and more cautious, etc. Whatever your innate personality traits, the process of creativity, self-discovery and growth are available to all living, functioning human beings who have the courage to embrace the journey.
(RG note) Thanks, Sandra. You’ll note that I said “the elder artist — may — just have to take more pains.” Anecdotal, sure, but it’s what I and others have observed. Don’t blame the postman. Regarding generalizations, how’s about your, “the perfectionist will probably become more of a perfectionist with age,” etc. I’ve met a few that didn’t. As a matter of fact, one of the main art lessons for me has been that leopards can change their spots.
Take the serial road
by Luc Poitras, Montreal, QC, Canada
The “right stuff” is really “Focus” that permits us not to sweat the small stuff (as Leslie Hoops-Wallace’s wrote). I’ve always maintained that multi-tasking is not necessarily the road to success. It permits you to get all your projects done to 90%, but not finished at all. Serial-tasking — focus on the main task — gets one project done at a time, but completely done. Yeah, I’ll take the serial road anytime — as long as I’ve got a map to find the other roads.
Refusing to conform
by Vita, Sutton, QC, Canada
For a mature individual the process of creativity consists of bringing the subconscious to the conscious. Maturity is a great component of being “fussy.” Before anybody could be labeled as demented, we should first consider the amount of accumulated information in the brain of the elder person. This in itself may slow down or impair the kind of thinking process which is not present in the mind of a young person who does not pay taxes, rent, debts and that does not worry about health, family deaths, etc. When the aged individual gains in wisdom and knowledge there is a price to pay. Yet, when we refuse to conform and use all our strength, we can express opinions that others will have never been able to conceive and surprise the constipated minds that take everything for granted.
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
With age comes the ability to honestly assess ourselves and our skills, our capabilities and shortcomings. I’m teaching a lot of people in my age bracket, 52 and above. These people are often beginners or intermediate beginners but they are not frustrated. They are a joyful, fun bunch to teach and to be around. I believe our strengths and weaknesses are amplified as we age. A tight artist becomes tighter. A person who lacks focus is a person who has trouble learning and using new concepts. It is as if we are willing to pull off the masks we wear to hide weakness and to expose who we are. I use to marvel at all the hype that artists spout, how they worked seventeen hours a day, seven days a week on their art, etc. I came to believe the time spent was irrelevant. What was important was the intensity of focus. In several very focused hours of painting I was able to get a great deal done. What I seek is focus. If I get a great hour or two to focus on painting each day I am happy. In between I accomplish to many tasks my household requires. I love the George Bernard Shaw quote that “youth is wasted on the young.” How true. With age comes the ability to really appreciate, to really savor, to really enjoy, to embrace the wonder of living. These abilities surely carry over to painting. I love the last painting Edward Hopper painted as an eighty year old. It was vintage Edward Hopper. The last paintings of a nearly blind Monet, and terribly crippled Renoir, clearly show these artists’ unique styles and painting interests. Critics might not single these works out as their best productions, but they have great authenticity. They were done for the love of painting and against great odds. You can’t help but marvel at these heroic efforts of these aged heroes of painting. Age is a good thing. Aging and failing are real human destinations that artists must embrace in their work in the same way as in other professions.
Enjoy the past comments below for The persistence of creativity…
Days of Happiness
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Linda Myers who wrote, “It is funny how I yearn for that intense meditative state that comes with working in the studio, especially if I find I haven’t had an opportunity to do so for long periods of time. Like right now.”
And also Rae Aeberli of Mt. View, AR, USA who wrote, “I was in a sculpture workshop on the first anniversary of my beloved Father’s death and was sculpting a clay likeness of him. I looked down at my left hand, and it was working independently of the rest of me, as it formed the eye socket and right cheekbone. When I became aware of it… it stopped. This was a very strange experience as I am normally right-handed.”
And also Jill Brooks of MB, Canada who wrote, “My friend Dale Willows of the U. of Toronto, who is involved in research into the acquisition of language skills, tells me that music is stored in a different part of the brain than language and can still be accessed once dementia has occurred. That explains why music therapy is so effective with the elderly clients and why Vera Lynn and The White Cliffs of Dover remain a perennial favourite!”
And also Jo Houtz of Abingdon, MD, USA who wrote, “I listen to audio books while painting. Seems a part of my brain needs something to focus on while the hand-eye thing is going on. Classical music while I cut mats and frame, but good murder mysteries while I am painting.”
And also Edna Hildebrandt who wrote, “Older people can be both exuberant and audacious as they are critical of their work. They have more time in their hands to spend in their art. With the change of social attitudes I think they also become bolder in their creative expressions. Recently some seniors of my acquaintance volunteered to pose for a charity calendar. They had fun doing it.”
And also Deloris (Lodi) Drane of Indianapolis, IN, USA who wrote, “My mother battled Alzheimer’s. It was heart wrenching. She was an artist – in every sense of the word. At the end of her life, she couldn’t remember even how to hardly speak, yet, she sang every word to every song, not missing one note or one beat to whatever song I started singing. She was on key and on time with each song. Yet, she could not speak her own name. We are just passing through. We are artists because we are. Enjoy!”
And also Kelly Borsheim of Cedar Creek, TX, USA who wrote, “I have been fortunate in that no matter how much worrying I may do, I have always had a deeper belief that everything would turn out alright. It is this, more than most, perhaps, that keeps me moving and venturing out.”