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Friday, February 20, 2015

The Art of Age

I was walking down a busy street in Buenos Aires and happened across some sort of open-door art studio/ art class. This older woman was so occupied with what she doing that she was the only one who didn't look up when I started taking pictures. She was in that wonderful space we lose ourselves in when we are being creative, when the work we are doing matters more than anything: the street noise, others in the room or intrusive cameras.

It's a space I've always loved to enter. But it seems to me that over the years of working and parenting I've lost some of that deep concentration I knew as a child creating new worlds. When I was about twelve I wrote story after story in small lined notebooks. They were largely adventure stories inspired by my love of Trixie Beldon, a fictional character I could relate much more to than the sophisticated Nancy Drew. The biggest compliment I got for one of my original stories was from a teacher who accused me of stealing it from a book.

I have tried my hand at fiction throughout the decades but, for the most part, I never put enough into it: most of the writing I did was work-related and non-fiction. Recently, I've entered that imaginary world again. Whole-heartedly. Creating lives for people who exist only in my head. I don't know if I can master something good enough to last but I know I am enjoying trying. And I know that I am able to enter imaginary worlds because I have the time to stay with them, to move undisturbed hours at a time with the next moves sloshing around in my brain. And that I have the experiences in life to create full characters.

It may be easy to see the creativity of the third phase as some sort of hobby to pass the time. Especially if we believe that creativity is the domain of the young. There are those that say our creativity begins to die the moment we enter school (We all know the changes in the wild drawings of children once they learn to draw inside the lines), and declines further as we try to conform or develop ossifying habits. 

But I just can't see it that way. I see it a a chance - for those open to it  - to grab the creativity that has been latent for too long. And I don't see it as a desperate act of accomplishing something before it's too late.( Of course, I am aware of time becoming a limiting factor. But then I always worked better with a deadline.) Creativity in the third phase comes without the pressure to perform; it is done more for the self than at any other time in adulthood.

The question remains; how good can the creative results of third phasers be? Creative energy is often equated with youth, especially in our social media/instant recognition era. But David Galeson in his book Old Masters, Young Geniuses, says creative types can be divided into innovators, the young geniuses who make brilliant breakthoughs and experimenters who build on their experience and improve with age. Think of masters like the artist Matisse and the poet Robert Frost who did some of their best work in their later years.

I once met the Canadian print maker David Blackwood and he told me he expects to continue to work as long as he's physically able to. He collects old French prints done by a master who got better and better until his death. Each an experimenter building on a life's work.

But what of those of us who haven't had the time to focus all our lives on particular creative skills?
I have a friend - Debbie Dryden - a woman I worked with in my early twenties when I started out as a teacher. She was the art teacher at the school, a graduate of a university art programme. But she had - as we all did - a complicated and busy life for much of her twenties to her fifties. She still managed to produce some innovative art during that time but could not give it her full attention. Now that she is retired she has returned to art in a serious way.

She turned part of her home into a studio, takes courses in her chosen art form - encaustic painting - joined an arts co-operative in Guelph, Ontario and regularly has shows with successful sales. No one can call this a hobby. She has the time, the commitment, the skills and the free imagination to accomplish great work. She is a prime example of rediscovering the full potential of a latent creativity in the third phase.


                                                                        Photo Courtesy: Debbie Dryden

While I love the visual arts, I'm more interested in knowing how writers fare as they age. Star writers like Doris Lessing and Alice Munro both decided there was a time to stop, which is alarming. But then there is Frank McCourt who didn't write Angela's Ashes until he was 66 and Wallace Stevens who started writing poetry after a career in business. More promising but perhaps just exceptions.

There's a bell curve (which looks exactly like a bell) that's been around for decades showing how creativity builds up until about forty and then declines rapidly until it almost flat lines by age 70. It has supported the belief out there in workplaces that new, young blood is needed all the time to come up with fresh ideas and has made us doubt our own powers of creativity and renewal.

Dean Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California, did research that sustained that bell curve. But then he discovered that if people traveled, had new experience, changed careers their creativity flew off the peak of the curve and spun upward.  In other words, age does not have to mean ossification. And that is the most hopeful take I can find.

That means, of course, that there's great creative potential for a generation of career-changers, frequent flyer, experimenters. It all makes sense to me.  Experience + new challenges + latent abilities = late creativity. Inhibiting bell curve be damned. D

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