David A. Smith
A Baylor University senior lecturer in history and Waco Symphony Association board member, David A. Smith can be reached at http://davidasmith.net.
My father, who’s in his mid-80s and two years a widower, recently moved from the house in the Dallas area in which he’d lived for 50 years to a retirement apartment here in Waco. It was a tough transition, exacerbated by an unexpected stay in the hospital which made acclimating to his new surroundings even harder.
Many years ago — decades, in fact — he took up oil painting and got to the point where he could produce some pretty good canvases, mostly landscapes and the like. But his time with the brush turned out to be short-lived: His other more active hobbies like fishing and golf took his attention away from the easel. His paintings retreated to the backs of closets and the attic.
About a year ago as he started preparing to sell the house, they began reappearing. I encouraged him to get back into painting once he relocated here, and to that end went out and bought him paints, brushes, canvases, an easel, the whole works. For a while they sat untouched. Recently however, he began to stir.
To my delight he’s now doing a new painting for the first time in I don’t know how long. It’s a landscape, as yet unfinished, but a couple of snow-capped mountain peaks are looking down over a placid little lake with evergreens alongside it, reflected in the water. He’s thinking about whether a cabin may be in there somewhere. He hasn’t lost his touch.
I’ve read about the ameliorative qualities of art for senior citizens for years now and even written a column on it. But hearing about it and witnessing it firsthand are very different. Like everything in the world of art, it simply doesn’t give you the full picture — no pun intended — just to read about it. Art is made to be experienced, both on the part of the creator and the viewer.
Here in Waco, I’ve had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with the Central Texas Watercolor Society and Art Guild of Central Texas, both of which count among their members several senior citizens. (I’m an admiring observer only, owing to my lack of talent.) They maintain active schedules of meetings and workshops and have at least a couple of exhibits each year. I’ve been honored when they’ve invited me to comment on these exhibits (usually hosted at places like McLennan Community College and the Carleen Bright Arboretum) and every time I do I’m impressed by what I see. I enjoy spending time with them, looking at their work and most of all listening to them thoughtfully and passionately discuss their art.
Last week I learned of the Carter Burden Gallery in New York, a space that shows only works by artists ages 60 and above. Sometimes we all need to hear obvious truths stated again, and gallery director Marlena Vaccaro’s comment that “older adults do not stop being who they are because they hit a particular age,” bears repeating. Of course they don’t, nor does creativity cease to function just because the body shows the effects of aging, but sometimes our relentlessly youth-oriented culture needs reminders.
Werner Bargsten, who’s 69, is a sculptor who had his first show at the gallery last October. “It’s always harder to get out of bed the older you get,” he recently told NPR, “but most of the artists that I’ve met here seemed like they missed that memo that they were getting old.”
I don’t think missing that memo is a bad thing at all. And I’ve seen how creating art can help people remain vibrant long after our culture assumes they can’t.