The art world is a big Triangle with artists like Jenny Saville on top, and aficionados like me who have home studios and exhibit on occasion, somewhere near the bottom. Full time or half, it pays to know where you are on the Triangle. ‘Seven days in the Art World’ by Sarah Thornton, not only examines the high roads, Thornton has a chapter on ubiquitous art school critiques, where students are molded or destroyed-- I often gift this book to my art-skeptical friends. Although folks on top make tons of money, there’s plenty of room for the unsung below decks. Funny thing-- during the winter of Covid-2021, shut-ins made bread and Zoomed art for comfort and connection.
Historian Philip Sohm writes that failing eyesight morphing into blindness has been one of the biggest fears for artists. By mid-eighteenth century glasses were common, but cumbersome and didn’t compensate for astigmatism, glaucoma or cataracts (Sohm 76). Another debilitation was ‘disobedient hands’ caused by tremors, Parkinson’s, or Syphilis. Poussin (1594-1665) commiserated, “I have great difficulty in writing because of the terrible trembling of my hand…. I have abandoned my brushes forever. There is nothing to do but die (Sohm 64, 65).” Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Renoir (1841-1919) kept on working in spite of arthritis. Matisse (1869-1954) who was cancer-bedridden resorted to paper cut-outs. Today, many diseases can be managed, and stores like Dick Blick.com sell ‘adaptive art supplies’ even for those not ambulatory. While museums provide wheelchairs, visitors would like to see more benches-please!
According to a Yale’s Becca Levy, having “a negative attitude toward old age can actually accelerate aging and shorten life more than seven years when all other medical and social factors are equal (Sohm 1,2).” Humanist Petrarch (1304-1374) who allegedly refused to discuss his age wrote, “When you feel that you are old, then and no sooner will you declare your old age (Sohm 3).” That doesn’t mean you won’t encounter age-discrimination. I went to graduate school after my fiftieth birthday and survived, but not without acquiring some emotional scars.
If you are a seasoned artist, you’ve learned that honing skills in one or more media is better than flitting from craft to craft. And if you’re shopping and don’t know what to pick, life experiences can help. Husband, David, grew up overlooking Gloucester’s Atlantic and rowed in high school and college. He used a point-and-shoot camera for his law job snapping: derelict property, repossessed fishing boats, tailings left from mining days. Dave merged his experiences along with his love of reading, into transitioning into digital photography, focusing on historic churches, and bridges.
Sometimes necessity will help you find your passion. Living in Alaska, there were times it was impossible to hire a carpenter. So David and I bought books, took woodworking classes and became reasonably adept at power tools. And there’s my friend George Smith, who saw a need to start The Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts, while in his late fifties-- (www.idsva.edu).
Plunge into art by taking a class. Art supply stores, universities and non-credit ateliers offer a variety of instruction and life drawing too. Since Covid, more classes appear online. And it’s never too late for that art degree!
Vacationing at an art camp provides opportunities to delve into a new art/craft without pressure of perfection, while sharing aesthetic experiences with fellow students. Ox-Bow School of Art in Saugatuck, Michigan, right on the lake, affiliated with The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, attracts SAIC faculty and students from its Chicago campus. Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle, Maine has mini-salt boxes for dorms, atop the state’s ubiquitous rocky coastline, designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes (1915-2004). A Southern climate offers four-season art classes at John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. Look for camps with comfortable housing, and a farm-to-table menu. For year round friendly competition, joining a co-op can provide regular showing of your work-- make sure to read the contract!
Artist Eric Rudd’s book ‘Strategies for Serious Older Artists’ provides suggestions for the mature artist. Rudd reminds, “Georgia O’Keefe and Louise Bourgeois created masterpieces into their 90s (Rudd 23).” Of interest: artist communities are popping up in cities looking for a way to revitalize. Rudd bought the Eclipse Mill in North Adams, Massachusetts, thus refurbishing a stale facility into saleable ‘live/work’ condos, complete with communal gallery (Rudd 77, 78). Be aware, some properties only offer rentals and studio space is shared. Website (www.theabundentartist.com) offers information about where to consider residing.
What will happen to your art when you die? Rudd writes, “The truth is that most art made by the majority of artists will end up in the attic, basement, dumpster or flea market (21).” I know a woman whose grandfather had been a New England painter/teacher; she nonchalantly threw away his drawings. And I’ve been to funerals where the deceased’s watercolors got rudely picked over. Rudd insists, “No one, and I mean ‘no one’ will care about your art as much as you do (171).”
While Rudd’s musings on how to develop a foundation or turn an old church into a small museum are probably out of bounds for the average artist, there are practical ways to preserve your art (Rudd 89). Digitizing images and verbiage on flash drives or into a Cloud account is sensible. Spreading your work around, either on DVDs or the actual art, is prudent in the event of fire--my children and siblings have a bunch of my paintings. Some site-specific artists purposely want their art to disappear/disintegrate. Other projects are lost forever. David spent two summers building a cabin on Beaver Lake only to see it burn in Alaska’s Miller’s Reach fire, 1996. Skills do transfer and unknowingly get passed down generationally. My two sisters and I possess: a drawing, an oil painting, a map, a woven blanket, which were made by ancestors in Upstate New York before the Civil War era. These remaining works, rendered before Modernism flattened and rearranged perspective, leave a priceless artistic trail.
Starting an art library can be beneficial, especially in the time of Covid, when travel continues to be limited. Many art tomes can be purchased ‘used’ for less money too. Subscribing to art magazines brings the aesthetic world up-close, with ‘Hyperallergic’ the best online rag. Critic Jerry Saltz wrote, “In the end, it all comes down to-- a life lived in art. Art is not about sociology, or social life, or money; it’s about something timeless (Art in America, September, 1993).”
This art critic is an over-sixty writer/painter who got hooked in high school. I’ve penciled and painted, sculpted, photographed, welded, sawed wood, sewn costumes, pounded bread, written criticism, volunteered, and experienced museums worldwide. I took a leave of absence to have children and did clerical work to pay for my kids’ colleges. Art is a forever activity--go for it!
Mini Sleuth: Text used from ‘Strategies for Serious Oder Artists’ by Eric Rudd and ‘The Artist Grows Old’ by Philip Sohm are on Amazon.
Jean Bundy is a writer/painter living in Anchorage. She serves on the board of AICA-International.