A few years ago now, I was chatting with my mother over a cup of tea. She was hesitating about signing up for her community college art class. She loved going to this class, and had been going for many years. She always sang the praises of her teacher, and her fellow students had become her friends. I expected that she would enrol once more. But she said:
“I don’t think I can go to class anymore. The chemo is wearing me out; I can’t carry my art bag up the stairs. Not now I need my walking stick as well.”
Surprised, and saddened, I said the first thing that came to mind:
“Well, I’ll come with you. I’ll carry your bag. I’ll sign up so we can both go together.”
And so I did. My mother was happy that I’d finally managed to ‘find the time’ to come along; she’d been recommending it to me for years. And it meant that my mother was able to continue on with her art class for several more years after that. We even signed up for more classes together; first drawing, then life drawing as well as painting.
My mother hardly ever missed a class. She relished learning about painting, and all manner of new art-making techniques. She was a keen organiser of a class exhibition held in a community gallery. She entered many pieces in the annual college show, over the years.
She always enjoyed the socialising, and the easy banter of her fellow painters. She even enjoyed it when different people aired their political views in class. She was a bit of a stirrer; she had no hesitation in voicing her own views, mainly for the reaction. She would bring cake for everyone on the last day of term, or bags of lemons from her garden to share.
She loved the inspiration of learning about new artists from our teacher. If our teacher suggested an exhibition to visit, she would go. Even though unwell, she took every opportunity to visit exhibitions across the city. She continued going right up until two weeks before she passed away. We trailed her all around the Art Gallery of New South Wales and the S H Ervin Gallery on that last day out in the city. Two galleries in one day is enough to wear anyone out, let alone a cancer patient. But my mother had found her passion for art and she lived it right until the end.
It’s true that my mother came to her art later in life. She began with a class in folk art with some girlfriends, painting on household items, like trays or blanket boxes. Painted teddy bears on gifts for her grandchildren. Then when that class folded, she found another one, and moved onto painting canvases.
My mother’s story is not uncommon. I’m sure there are many people who finally take up an interest, once they are free of kids and work obligations.
This story could be entirely about my mother, come to think of it.
But it’s not. It’s actually about me.
Unlike my mother, I studied art right through high school. I learnt a bit about printmaking, black and white photography, painting and ceramics. I thought my drawing was ok. I knew a thing or two about art history; I could recognise and talk about all the greats. I thought I’d be just fine in a class full of senior citizens.
But when I arrived in this art class, I got a shock. It was not what I expected at all. I was the little fish, and the art class was a much bigger pond than I’d imagined.
The majority of the class would have been over 65. Some were new to art. Others had developed an art practice for most of their lives, and were even commissioned to do work for people. Some were in the local art society, and were very proud of the fact, indeed.
Others had wanted to do art all their life, and it was only now that they were free to do so. There were many talented painters, each with their own unique style. Everyone was making art. Everyone was different and totally unique. Best of all, everyone was passionate about their art.
So here are some reasons why I think going to art class, at any age, is a great idea.
Art class shakes you right out of your comfort zone
If your art class doesn’t take you out of your comfort zone, it’s likely you haven’t found the right one.
Sometimes it’s good to be the little fish. In art class, awe and admiration of other people’s work is useful. You don’t want to be the best in the room. You want to look at other people’s work, and feel a little jealous. Then you look a little closer and take something away which you can use to make your own work even better.
Of course a good art class needs a great teacher.
A great teacher supports you when you’re doing something well, but doesn’t let you rest on your laurels.
A good teacher turns your painting upside-down — metaphorically and literally — and makes you look at it in a new way.
And even if you don’t always get what they mean when they talk about tone and composition, slowly, in spite of yourself, you do. And slowly it begins to come through in your work.
Art makes you a nicer person
Art class is a cool place to hang out with people. Often there’s some music playing. When it’s a workshop situation it means that you can talk whenever you want. The dress-code is pretty relaxed, so no stress worrying about what to wear.
People who do art — especially those who were denied an opportunity to do it until later in life are generally nice. Maybe it’s because they appreciate the gift of being able to finally make art? Maybe they realise that there’s no point in getting competitive or antsy with your fellow artists when it will just mess up your mojo.
Art should make you a nicer person. Why? Because it slows you down. It teaches you patience. It is a sensuous, tactile experience, where to grow you must always be open to learning.
Art class makes you see
Many writers have used a visual art practice to inform their writing. Flannery O’Connor, Victor Hugo, the Brontes and William Blake are a few well-known examples. When you draw or paint something, you can’t just look at it in passing. You need to really look at it.
In painting, you need to consider line, colour, energy. For example, say I want to paint a gum tree. How do I do that? I could start with the form. I don’t want to paint in every leaf, so I could look at the light, and the shadow. And then the interplay between them.
Will I attempt to capture the exact colour of the tree? Or will I look for the textures of the bark and the foliage? Will I try for a realistic image? Or will I break away completely and use different colours and shapes?
There are so many approaches to how I could paint my gumtree. But what is significant to me? What will I try to convey?
Mixing colours on a palette forces you to see how colours can sing and create mood. Choosing certain tones to work in will create and convey certain emotions. Knowing which details to highlight and which to exclude are a choice. We can all use this way of seeing, writers or not.
Everyone has a story
An art class is a village of sorts. In our class, there was Agnes, whose thing was scenes from Provence. She’d go outside for cigarettes, in between brushstrokes. Was she channelling some younger version of herself, smoking Gauloises in Paris?
Joan, who painted beautiful watercolour landscapes of the ocean, lived her life around her little dog. She told us she had a daughter who was studying art at college. But she never seemed to have anything nice to say about this daughter and was dismissive of her attempts to do art. Not surprisingly, the daughter rarely visited her, and Joan just couldn’t quite understand why.
Mary, an oil painter, was in the early stages of dementia. She told us her father had forbidden her to study art when she was a girl. So, in class, she worked like a tornado, making up for all that lost time. She would throw paint across the canvas, completing a huge new landscape every week. Her devoted husband would collect her each week and carry each new work home for her. He laughed that their garage was full to the brim of Mary’s paintings, and soon they’d have to find a bigger house. But Mary wouldn’t stop her painting for anything.
The making of art can take you to places you never imagined you might go. Sometimes — often — this can be therapeutic.
I remember one time our teacher gave us a project based on childhood memories. The idea was to gather objects from our childhood and use these as inspiration for our work. She encouraged us to bring in old photos, any toys we remembered, places we loved and more.
One lady with Alzheimers, whose daughter was also an artist, painted the most beautiful watercolours of children on a beach. Her daughter said she hadn’t been that engaged in art for quite some time. Not since her husband, a professional painter, had passed away.
Another lovely man in his seventies painted a scene that reminded him of time spent with his father. When he was explaining his work to our teacher one day, he began to cry. He was shocked, I think. Big boys don’t cry, and all that. But it felt like one of those breakthrough moments when long buried emotions finally come to light and are released. After a lifetime of restraining his emotions he was able to heal a part of himself through his art.
You can leave something for those who follow on behind
You don’t have to be a professional artist. You don’t have to sell your work, or even exhibit it. It might even be better if you don’t, because then you don’t have to worry about finding someone to like your work when all you want to do is paint.
But what better gift to leave someone you love than your own artwork?
It’s been two and a half years since my mum passed away. I’m lucky that I got to have that time in art class with her. I keep going, even now, because I love that class, our teacher and my fellow students.
Mostly I keep going in memory of Mum.
Mum’s paintings cover the wall of my parent’s house. They are beautiful to us. I know they are a comfort to my dad. I find something new in them every time I see them.
They tell us a story of the last years of our mother’s life. Landscapes she visited and loved, scenes of nature, still-lives. Abstract experiments, gorgeous colours, lots of flowers. Her very last paintings are single flowers, roses, camellias. To me, they are mandalas. I wonder if Mum saw them that way too, as she painted them, in those last few weeks of her life on earth.
I think my siblings, my father, our families and I will always be grateful that she left us her paintings. Something personal and beautiful that we all treasure, especially now she’s left us. They resonate something of her spirit, something no words can express.
So it’s never too late to find your passion. Whether it’s golf or genealogy or dancing or something else, there’s always time, even if you’re a beginner. It doesn’t matter how good you are, it just matters that you love what you do. Like my mother, I got into art quite late. I doubt I’ll ever hang my work in a gallery, but it’s not about that. The joy is in the act of making art, and a great art class gives you the time out and the space to do just that. Try it, if you don’t believe me.
As for me, I’m lucky. Not only did my mother leave a house full of beautiful images but she, clever mamma that she was, gifted me her art class too…
First published on Medium on April 9, 2019