Thanks so much to all who wrote in response to my last letter The aging artist. In addition to tears of joy, your letters brought to mind some notable remarks that people make in conversation. Older artists are familiar with, “Are you still painting?” I’ve found that by leaving a little paint on your hands or clothes you can sometimes head off the question — but some folks just want to get it in anyway. Perhaps they are a bit resentful of the lives they think we live. Once, when I told a friend I was still painting, he remarked, “Too bad. It must be a hell of a way to eke out a living.” Actually, when you appear to be ekeing, people tend to be supportive. Not always later when you show up in your Rolls.
A friend used to paint until two in the afternoon — then go door-to-door selling his work. He loved the direct connection. He made a pile of friends and money to burn. This happened when he was in his early twenties and he looked like a kid. When he started to mature his door-to-door fell off. “You’re too old for this,” they told him. At 28 it was time for gallery representation and less personal exposure. It was a new season.
Then there’s the guy who asks, “How long did it take you to paint that?” The answer of course is “65 years” — or about your current age. Artists (in our letters) were pretty well divided as to whether proficiency improves with aging. In any case, most don’t retire easily, much to the disgust of their friends who do. It’s just too much fun getting up in the morning with something to be curious about. I’m at the stage where retired friends phone up and say they have a bottle of Scotch and ask if they can come over in the morning. Are you kidding?
A bothersome type is the connoisseur collector who tells you (and his friends) that he owns the two best paintings you ever painted. I wonder how they know that. How could they compare? They couldn’t possibly have seen as many bad ones of mine as I have. To add insult to injury they sometimes follow with: “He hasn’t done a good one since.” Guys who say these sorts of things are often businessmen. They also tend to suffer from the opinion that artists can use a businessman’s advice. “You need more international exposure,” they explain. “Singapore is big — we’ve sold millions of widgets there.” Be polite.
PS: “When you know the artist, you think less of the art.” (George Bernard Shaw)
Esoterica: Something I realized from the volume of artists’ letters was that many older artists greet life daily with remarkable equanimity and joy. Professional and amateur alike told of settled pride and a sense of balanced righteousness. Art, for many, is a late prize awarded after a time of toil in a less appealing field. With the natural turn of the seasons, art arrives as a gift. Art is a private wonder so valuable and so sacrosanct that no one and no remark can despoil it. “For everything there is a season.” (Ecclesiastes)
“I wouldn’t have the patience for that.” For years the comment left me dumbstruck; it seemed such a non sequitur. I finally realized that the right response was “If you love what you are doing, you don’t need patience.” (Sally De Fazio, Boston MA, USA)
“She’s too old to get very far with it but if it keeps her happy.” (Teresa Fletcher)
“What’s your real job?” I have found that as I have reached middle age it seems to be more comfortable for folks that I have an art career. Is it because I’ve been around so long that I’ve worn them down? (Linda Blondheim, Gainesville FL, USA )
“Who would ever have thought you would become the “primo” Memphis artist!” (Cornelia)
“Oh, how nice. Painting gives you something to keep you busy!” (Carol Norton, Sun Lakes AZ, USA)
When a collector has known my work, then finally meets me I almost always get this comment: “I thought you’d be much older!” I take it as the ultimate compliment. (Rita Roberts, Monte Vista CO, USA)
I was standing in front of my easel on the beach at Scarborough Bluffs here in Ontario. Brush in hand and contemplating my next stroke when a voice from behind me said “Did you do that by hand?” (Margie Hunter Hoffman, Toronto ON, Canada)
(RG note) “No, by foot actually.” In a similar situation a man got his face closer and closer to what I was doing and eventually remarked, “That is a fantastic brush.”
Stupid remarks about watercolour
by Ellen Friel, Amherst, NH, USA
In a recent gallery conversation I had with a collector friend whom I had to set straight, she said, “You know, I really like that piece, but I’d never buy it because it’s a watercolor. It isn’t as valuable.” Where the hell did this rumor start? Are we still living in the dark ages? Of course, we need to consider the source. But people, please educate your friends, family, associates, etc. Are dealers only encouraging the purchase of oils? Has no one ever heard of Sargent, Homer, Wyeth? I don’t need to tell you what my primary medium is! I’m doing my part for my watercolor colleagues. Recently, my family has started giving an award to the Currier Museum of Art Show sponsored by the New Hampshire Art Association. The name? Award for Excellence in Watercolor.
Painted the music inside her
by Faith Puleston, Wetter, Germany
I’m a performing musician by trade, but music is ephemeral, and the performer/interpreter leaves little trace of “soul” once the performance has been processed into some kind of electronic record. Five years ago I started to try and paint the music inside me. I vowed that I would not leave this world without trace. I don’t know whether my paintings are any good, but they are original; every stroke of the brush bears witness to my presence in them. My children, friends, etc will know that I have been here. I don’t want people to forget me altogether. Sometimes I even think I am a proxy for what my mother did not achieve. That must be my imagination running riot, of course, but who knows? We are all apparently still breathing the air Mozart once inhaled.
Life begins at 55
by Janice and Klaus Vogel, Senden, Germany
Over the years we have become friends with Ernest Marza who is still painting at 81, using the proceeds to fund his trips and art collecting. How wonderful to be able to do something you love and be paid for it, long into what would be for others retirement. What our friend also told us was that for him, life started getting fun at around 55. He dropped us a note recently saying that he was planning a trip to Paris in the spring — made possible by his continued painting. All I can say to him is “good on you!” That we know him makes it all the more pleasant when we look at his paintings and remember when we bought them.
by Joy Meppem, Harboard, New South Wales, Australia
Being an artist isn’t just about painting — in this day and age we have to be marketers of our own work too. Photographing paintings, cataloguing for an updated portfolio, sourcing possible buyers — this all takes an incredible amount of time and energy. It’s a bit like asking a barrister “have you been to court lately?” Hello! Most of a barrister’s time is spent researching and writing advice. And yet they are known for their fleeting moments in court. Funny heh. Perhaps this whole question about “have you been painting” is more a way to judge and compare — perhaps it really means “are you doing better than me?”
Older and wiser
by David Lussier, Woodstock, CT, USA
One of the most important aspects of the ‘Aging Artist’ is the knowledge and wisdom that the young can learn from the old. I have a very good painter friend and mentor, George Carpenter of Maine, whose stories and advice and criticism are a true blessing. I don’t get the chance to visit or paint with George as often as I would like, but a two minute conversation with him on the phone is always a jump start for the artist within. He’s been around the block, so to speak, and I find it important to listen. Sometimes I don’t agree — until sometime much later when I find that “Ole George certainly was right about that too.” As a landscape painter, George is a remarkable and gifted artist. He also has a photographic memory and I’ve had the pleasure to watch many paintings from start to finish both on location or in the studio from memory. Sitting in a restaurant, I’ve watched as he makes remarkable sketches on place mats of places he has been with such a precision and feel for the subject. It’s a culmination of a truly gifted mind that has been worked hard by the artist who owns it and by the many decades of being productive.
What a way to go
by Carl Purcell, Ephraim, UT, USA
We are all artists and we are all aging, but what a way to go! I find that the older I get, the better my art is getting. I think it is the practice. I hope by the time I am 90 to have done something really good. I look forward to the start of each new day. I recently taught a workshop at a new location and during the introductions noticed that almost all of the people there had spent a life doing other things involving technology and intellectual brain activities. They finally now had time to do what they had always wanted to do. I wondered how many artists there are who reach retirement age and then start pursuing a life in computers or science, having put it on a shelf all those years while they carved out a career in art. I want to be like Degas, who said on his deathbed, “Damn, and just when I was starting to get it!” Art makes life great.
Old age security
by Andrew Goss, Owen Sound, ON, Canada
It was as if it was only yesterday that I was an “emerging” artist and then turned around and suddenly found myself an “established” artist, selling my work across the country, touring kindergarten students through the studio, remitting taxes, paying suppliers. A lot of my non-artist friends are on the verge of retiring, leaving that world of business or teaching behind, concerned about whether they have enough money invested to carry on. I usually have a brief panic attack thinking about my tiny retirement savings, then realize that not only can I keep working, but that I want to keep working until my hands and my eyes don’t function any more. My security is in knowing that I have a skill, a vocabulary from my life to communicate my ideas, and just enough business sense to be able to sell what I make.
Worse than suffering?
by Catherine Cote, Winnipeg, MB, Canada
What is worse than being a suffering artist? Being a successful one! Either way there is judgment! I once was approached by a potential ‘business investor’ who compared buying art to leasing vehicles. I decided to take a pass. I am left on these days to remember the people who appreciate my art without needing to know anything else about it, other than experiencing their own organic connection to it.
Every day in every way
by Mary Hagy, Loretto, KY, USA
All I have ever known is that an artist just gets better and is more appreciated and collected as they become elderly — to the point they are considered a community treasure and are helped with physical assistance when needed so they can continue to paint. Gives me a new appreciation for my community. I’m treated so well to the point I’m stopped often when out by parents with their children wanting to introduce them to the person that painted the picture in their house. Children are in awe — like they have spotted a unicorn. They really relate to something they have lived with all their lives. I have been called numerous times over a battle for one of my paintings in a divorce. I’m 54 and feel I’ve just started. In fact just signed a lease yesterday to open my own gallery. Retire/stop living? No way.
It’s your lobe
by Mona Youssef, Ottawa, ON, Canada
It has been interesting for me to read about the “prefrontal lobe cortex” in the brain that is mostly involved with elaborating thoughts, intelligence, motivation, creativity, philosophy, reasoning, communications skills, sense of morality, concern for others and personality. Artists have a large and fixable prefrontal lobe cortex which contributes to higher mental functions. Also, behind the prefrontal lobe cortex is a strip stretching across the head — the motor cortex which contains billions of neurons that connect with our muscles. Grouping of nucleic acid and protein molecules in these areas contributes to the love of arts. As professor Michael Leyton pointed out, “Art is perhaps the most inexplicable phenomenon of the human species.”
Journey to enlightenment
by Jim Pescott, Calgary, AB, Canada
My journey includes a few decades in corporate environments as a person with little space for childhood artistic aspirations but constantly yearning for something to pull me away from perpetual depressive moods. Aging for me has been a natural catalyst; it allowed my thoughts to clear, much as if I’d been drinking all night and then found enlightenment in a morning hangover. The spirit of this sobriety is centered in art and my return to childhood aspirations. Life is simply more of the many wonderful things that didn’t seem possible when I was younger.
What season is this?
by Jamie Lavin, Gardner, KS, USA
I’m not sure which “season” I’m in. I’m somewhere between “Thanks, we’ve seen stuff like yours before” to “Now accepting the award for Mankind’s Greatest Artist.” Recent comments confer upon me the status of “Regional Artist.” I’m not sure if that refers to a style, like that of John Stuart Curry, or if they mean I work regionally, or sell regionally, or maybe think regionally. I know one thing for sure, I can’t even think locally the day after a 3-day show, like today. There’s a definitive response to the aging artist! Shows let the aging artist enjoy the public more; you sort of know what to expect and enjoy the people-watching even more than the other exhibitors. I’ve learned to write the invoice faster than the patron can say, “I’ll be in touch” — write that off to experience in a regionalist’s studio! All the shows and exhibits I was in, I always heard, “What do you do — I mean, for a real job?” Now, I get asked how I do it full time. Even other artists, standing there looking at my work, wonder out loud how I possibly can make a living. They leave out the conclusion words — “with this stuff?” Tell me what season I’m in so I can look for the next one!
(RG note) I once personally delivered a commission to a high brow businessman. When his low brow secretary saw the painting coming in the door she exclaimed, “Ten thousand dollars for that thing?” I knew I had entered my “high priced season.”
by James Kay, Fort Worth, TX, USA
I retired from Lockheed Martin 12/31/04, after 32 1/2 years service. Having the time to spend without the distraction of a 40 hour a week job is glorious. Thoughts and organization seem to work in another realm. The frustration of having a vision and not having the opportunity to “strike while the iron is hot” is counter-productive to say the least. We all have different insights and experiences to draw from and in the sharing we all grow from the experience. “To thine own self be true” will show in your work. How can you know a man or woman’s heart otherwise?
by Louise Currin, Hadley, MA, USA
I recently lost a friend who was 91 years old, who had to spend the last two years of his life in a nursing home. He figured out how to prop his watercolor board on his walker, and sitting on the edge of his bed, he finished 10 large paintings the last winter of his life. Painting was one of the things that kept him going and interested in life. We can all hope to be so lucky as to be able to continue to paint and enjoy it as long as possible.
(RG note) Thanks, Louise. Your friend was the oldest reported artist in response to this particular twice-weekly letter. The youngest (older) artist reported was 32.
The old man mad about drawing
by Katharine Stall, Middletown, CT, USA
Thanks for The aging artist and the whole series of lovely responses. I expected someone to cite that famous quotation from Hokusai (which always cheers me), but since nobody did, here it is:
“From the age of six I had a mania for drawing the shapes of things. When I was fifty I had published a universe of designs. But all I have done before the age of seventy is not worth bothering with. At seventy five I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am eighty you will see real progress. At ninety I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At a hundred I shall be a marvelous artist. At a hundred and ten everything I create, a dot, a line, will jump to life as never before. To all of you who are going to live as long as I do, I promise to keep my word. I am writing this in my old age. I used to call myself Hokusai, but today I sign myself ‘The Old Man Mad About Drawing.’ ”
by Theresa Beckemeyer, Boulder, CO, USA
Today I quit my accounting job. I’m not a good accountant. I’m an emotional artist who wants to help others through art. I’m searching for information on “Art Therapy.” What better group to help me find a connection than a bunch of artists. Would you have any sources for me? Do you think our clan could help? My Mom always said that it never hurts to ask.
(RG note) Thanks, Theresa. I’m sure someone will contact you. For more information regarding Art Therapy, see my letter How art heals.
Digital painting (3ds max, Photoshop and VRay)
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, 2005.
That includes Teresa Boston who wrote, “I feel I’ve entered a time of real personal growth after retiring from a government service job. I think I’ve lost a couple of friends… they seemed to like me better fat and miserable with the old job. I’m just too happy now!”
And also Dr. Mohammad Ali of Penang, Malaysia who wrote, “I am an Art Professor, currently teaching Art in Malaysia. I love to paint and yes, I’m “still painting,” my special interest is in portraits of common and prominent personalities in the USA, Pakistan, India and now in Malaysia.”