Part of the Aging Well Through Arts Special Report
I’m a wandering art teacher. As a teaching artist, I bring my art supplies in large plastic storage bins to odd places — nursing homes, adult day care centers, assisted living facilities and independent senior residences. The classes often meet in communal dining rooms; sometimes I have to clear away salt and pepper shakers and vases of plastic flowers before I can spread out my plastic cloths and set up for class.
Even though I’m in my 70s, many of my students are two decades older than me. Many have disabilities associated with very old age — troubles with knees, hips, eyesight, hearing memory… They come with a jumble of walkers and wheelchairs. Most have done little or no art since they were children. It doesn’t matter. Together, we create art.
In third grade, her teacher said she had talent in drawing and encouraged her to take art lessons. But her father said 'Absolutely, no!' Now, at 91, she was doing art.
Like Life, Art Is Messy
Here is what we do in my classes. We work with paper collage, which is colorful, fun and a little messy. We begin with rubbings on thin tissue paper. I steal fresh leaves in all sorts of shapes from bushes and gardens. I also bring coins from many different countries. Using soft artist crayons, we gently trace the designs, filling up a large sheet of paper. Then we dye the tissue paper with washes of watercolor paints. Because the rubbings are wax, the designs show through. It’s like magic.
We do a lot of cutting, ripping and pasting. It’s messy — scraps of paper fly around the room. Fingers get gooey, which is all part of the fun. We glue designs with fine, brightly colored tissue paper which crinkles under our fingers. “Wrinkles are good!” I tell my students.
My students amaze me.
Delia came to one of my classes a few years ago. She lived in an assisted living place. When I first met her, I noticed that she kept repeating the same questions. But she worked hard on her collages, using bright colors applied thickly. As in many of my workshops, a few staff people from the assisted living site helped out. While she painted and glued, Delia started talking about herself and we learned that she is a remarkable woman. She told us about raising 20 foster children, along with her own biological children. “I never knew that!” one of the program staff said. She saw Delia in a whole new way.
Another student was Liddy. She was in one of my classes in a nursing home last year. In third grade, her teacher had told her that she had talent in drawing and encouraged her to take art lessons. But her father said “Absolutely, no!” and that was that. Now, at 91, she was doing art — and she really was good at it!
The Big Question
Most of my teaching assignments come through COMPAS (Community Programs in the Arts), a Minnesota nonprofit whose mission is to unleash creativity through art. COMPAS places professional artists in grade schools, health care facilities and other community settings. I’m one of the artists on their roster for the Artful Aging initiative. When I was invited to be part of this program, it felt like a natural fit.
Art had always been my passion on the side for me. I sketched during meetings and painted on vacations. But I had another career. As a young woman, I had considered studying art, but wanted to earn an actual livelihood. I became a gerontologist. I earned a Ph.D. in sociology and had a 25-year career as a researcher, specializing in the study of aging.
About 15 years ago, my husband had a heart attack and that changed everything. Fortunately, he recovered completely. Even so, this encounter with mortality made both of us ask: What’s really important? What do we want to do with our time?
I wanted to spend the rest of my life really focusing on art. So I began my career as an artist. I was 60 years old. I didn’t see this as retirement. I saw it as a new career.
Becoming an Artist
I’ve had very little formal art training. My mother-in-law, Marian Fischer, was an accomplished artist, and on our visits, we would paint together. She was my mentor.
I really haven’t given up my interest in aging, though. Now I do art on the theme of aging. I taught myself to paint upside down, inside out and backwards on hand blown glass. With vivid colors and fanciful designs, I create glass art works about life, aging, and the passage of time.
My fourth book is called I’m New at Being Old. It’s a picture book for adults and is filled with my vibrantly colored collages that portray my own experience with growing old in a whimsical fashion. For example, I worry about the possible “unraveling of my mind” and the “breakdown of movable parts.”
One image shows an older woman looking askance and wrapping her hands around a pile of marbles, with the comment, “But, at least for now, I still have all my marbles!” Another theme evokes the “sisterhood of sleeplessness” with a street at nighttime where an older woman, in every house, is awake and looking out her window.
Trying Something New
Teaching art to people who are a generation older than me gives me a special perspective on my own aging. My students inspire me. They are often astonished at their own creations. They say, “I didn’t know I could do that!”
Their lives are not easy — and yet here they are creating art, trying something new.
Research studies show that art stimulates the brain and makes people healthier. What I see is that art brings joy. And that is wonderful enough for me.