It’s never too late to blossom
I do it because I have to do it; it’s a compulsion that also gives me pleasure. I never in my life had any idea of money and I thought fame was a very vulgar thing. So I just worked and waited. And at the end of my life, I’m getting a lot of recognition, to my amazement and my pleasure, actually.”
– Carmen Herrera, painter, at age 94
As a person in my mid-forties, I’m perched at the glorious precipice between youth and advanced age.
This liminal space here, the median point between the unbeing of ‘before life’ and the unbeing of death, allows me to contemplate (at once) youth and agedness. A decade before now, I could not see ageing. And a decade along, youth will be a ghost.
I know it’s rather simplistic to perpetuate this binary of youth vs advanced age. Life is layered and imbricated – circular sometimes – rather than linear.
None the less, a defined constructed boundary allows me to imagine how I want to ‘be’ during the second part of my life.
I admit there are lots of hazy elements. For instance: the level of involvement I’ll have with my grandchildren, to grey hair or not to grey hair, how the ageing of my body will slow some of my functions – and when.
But one thing I know for certain is I want to continue making art.
Look for creative role models around you
In this shaping of how my creative life will look when I’m older, I have actively sought models of great lives (and lives where I see missed opportunities). These are a type of scaffolding to use when I get lost or when my culture is telling me a narrative that my gut screams to me is flawed.
Like that I’m too old to learn new things.
Or make new things.
Or be a new person.
There’s my mentor and friend, Peter Kadar, for instance. He taught me history in high school and is now in his sixties. He moves with the agility of a whippet, and his mental wildness and vivacity remains. There’s sparkle in his language and curiosity in his demeanour. He speaks respectfully to others, writes, teaches other teachers and is actively involved in a community mentoring program as an advocate for people with disabilities and mental illnesses. Whenever I speak with him, I get the sense that he has rolled his vast life experiences into a tight ball and he’s firing them out into the world. They hit the earth with little explosions of goodness.
I guess it’s through having the privilege of being surrounded by people like Peter that I’ve lately become a proponent of the idea that it’s never too late.
And, in that flavour, I bring to you the story of artist Carmen Herrera.
Herrera is 101 years old in May. She was born in Cuba in 1915, and lived between Cuba and Paris before settling in New York in the 50s. In an interview with The New York Times she says, “I’ve painted all my life. It makes me feel good.” Certainly, for a great many people, working at something simply because it makes them feel good is a unobtainable privilege. But where the chances to make and create do arise, how many of us take up the opportunity – and how many of us squander it, instead choosing to dedicate time and energy to television, gossip or renovating the kitchen?
Herrera’s dedication to her work (she sold her first piece when she was in her 20s), seems to have paved the way for a fruitful and productive second half of life. This year alone, her work will be shown in an exhibition at Lisson Gallery in New York and at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
It’s important to note: though she’s been honing her craft all life, it wasn’t until she was in her 80s until Herrera received international recognition. I want to stop for a moment and imagine this point because it’s relevant, I think, for every person doing creative work. Even in the era of social media, sometimes nobody knows your name. You won’t always win prizes. You won’t always complete projects. Often, your achievements will almost only be known to you and your close ones. And, you know what? None of that matters. The need for external validation crushes creativity and it oppresses the artist.
Final point to ponder
Ask yourself, even if no one validates my work until I’m 80 (or until after I’m dead) – look yourself in the eyes – will it matter?
If the true answer is yes, then maybe consider going into something that is not as slow cooked as art.
If the answer’s no, then start today to consciously shape your creative life. Look for role models who resonate for you, then put your head down and concentrate on what gives you pleasure.