“The life so short, the craft so long to learn.”
Geoffrey Chaucer opening lines, The Parliament of Fowls
Two books, Uprooted: A Gardener Reflects on Beginning Again by Paige Dickey, and The Age of Creativity: Art, Memory, My Father and Me by Emily Urquhart have had an unexpected impact on me as we enter the second year of the Pandemic. They reflect deeply on creativity and old age. Can you still make meaningful art when your body and perhaps your mind begin to falter?
Neither of these books discusses pottery or ceramics yet they have something to say to anyone who is a maker. Dickey is a renowned garden designer and writer whose showcase garden, Duck Hill, won accolades. Faced with strained finances, and a seventy something body that could not easily do the intensive and meticulous maintenance her garden required, she and her eighty-year-old fellow gardener and husband decided to move and start anew.
The book is about leaving behind a decades in the making achievement. It is about uncertainty and change. This is not about moving to a condo or senior living facility. No, Dickey boldly moved to a seventeen-acre property in Northwestern Connecticut. She makes paths through the woods and fields and plants perennial borders close to the house. Informality and nature reign, a stunning departure from Duck Hill with its crisply clipped hedges and traditional English garden style rooms, what she called “embroidered ground.” She throws herself wholeheartedly into this new aesthetic. More importantly she discovers the pleasure of slowing down enough to savor what she has wrought, creating for herself rather than show.
Urquhart’s book more deliberately focuses on questions of age and creativity. She reads, does research, travels and conducts interviews. She tells us that the year Willem de Kooning was diagnosed with dementia, he made more paintings than any other year of his life. Claude Monet was in his sixties and suffering from cataracts when he painted his water lily series. Contemporary critics were harsh on both artists but today we know better.
Urquhart describes her poignant visit to Bruce McCall ‘s studio. McCall, eighty-four and suffering from Parkinson’s, showed her that he could not hold a brush and so could not finish The New Yorker cover he was working on. Unable to paint or draw, but also a writer, he left the unfinished cover on his easel, and instead worked on a memoir ten hours a day. He told Urquhart that he would have nothing left to do if he could not write. Write he did. How Did I Get Here? came out around the same time as her book.
She tells us that Alice Neel painted her most important works in her seventies and eighties. At the age of eighty, she painted a startling portrait of herself – old and nude. Forty years later, this piece is still radical.
The thread that stitches The Age of Creativity together, the reason for the book, is Urquhart’s father, Tony Urquhart, the Canadian painter and sculptor (her mother is the novelist Jane Urquhart). He draws every day, nearly all day. He works in series. Even while seated at the table for a family meal, he faces a cork board pinned with his sketches and ideas. His knowledge of the work of other artists is vast and intimate. In his eighties, he is diagnosed with dementia. Yet, he continues to make art, to look at art. When he sketches, he is “transported to that unreachable place, the landscape of his imagination, as life carried on all around him.”
Not everyone gets to be old, let alone do one’s work into old age. Luck is a factor. I do not have statistics, but it seems to me that potters who live into their eighties and beyond, usually continue to create. Many of our legends worked well into their late years: Lucie Rie, Warren MacKenzie, Michael Cardew, Karen Karnes to name a few. Some mastered a new art form, like Beatrice Wood who picked up the pen at ninety, or MC Richards who produced large paintings in her late years. As these two books show, what one does with one’s art late in life varies with the artist, but there is no reason to believe that creativity wanes.