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Lesson from Ladies at 90

When I went back to university to continue my studies in Art History, I had a friend who had started out in chemistry. She had even obtained a degree but had decided what she was really interested in was art. I always admired the fact that some people have both right and left sides to their brains as I am a possessor of only the right-side. ☹

I could not possibly imagine switching from art to science. Throughout my entire life, it has been books and pictures. If I had been a sufficiently serious student first time round, I would have gone directly towards art history.

Perhaps it would not have made a difference back in 1968 because even in 1980 when I did receive my Masters, there were few women with whom to study. At University of Toronto, I the talented accomplished wives of art history profs were permitted a course here or there on the main campus, but for the most part, they were assigned to classes in Scarborough or at other locations, then far from the downtown action on St. George.

The only shining light was Bogmilia Welsh-Ovcharov who dazzled on Van Gogh when her time came to finally teach on what was known as “ the main campus”. She was later responsible for the brilliant show on the birth of Cloisonnism at the AGO . I recall a derisive attack made on a critique of Van Gogh years before by Griselda Pollock because of its Marxist leanings, and yet years later the AGO adopted it as the official one for viewing the exhibit! How times and perspectives change. Suffice it to say that 1840 was considered modern in the 80’s at U of T and I hardly shone in my Giotto classes nor with my stodgy instructors.

But I always loved the visual, maybe what Paul Klee called ” taking a line for a walk.” I always drew-mucka-pucka, as my parents called my doddles. My father’s intricate circuits that covered every margin or cakebox surface were real explorations of electricity, but my sketches were frivolous. Still I scribbled and my parents- although lovers of music- must have endured my delight of crayon, pencil and paper.

My first painting in kindergarten displayed an acrobat in a progressive series of movements throughout the air, thought quite original for my age. And my teacher of an afterschool class on Wednesdays ( spoiled because I had to display my underpants to a threatening small boy in order to pass on the street to get home) lauded my pictures of Jack and Jill as they climbed up their steep hill.

One of my treasured memories is of my father somehow managing to procure Andrew Loomis’s art book for me on Queen Street. This was a time before there were broken down curbs or parking spaces for the handicapped and he was a polio victim, having to use braces and crutches. How he parked and carried the rather large book home and even remembered that I longed for it is a mystery. Later I wrote an article in Ars Medica on how much that gesture by my father meant to me.

Throughout my university years, I would attend Central Tech high school at night for figure drawing or in the summer where I enrolled in their evening art classes.

Interestingly enough I had wanted to go to Art School but fortunately my parents did not approve. I say “ fortunately” now because eventually we discover our true talents, not places we just visit dally. Reproducing Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra , badly I might add, or other movie stars does not indicate great talent. In retrospect I now understand I would not have been an artist, perhaps an art historian or critic, but although I have the passion I do not own the talent.

So the wisdom of parents set me on the right path. Even more importantly, I eventually met my husband, the enduring love of my life. Had I gone another route, perhaps, another door would have opened, but I can look back at my studies and my path as successful and rewarding.

This is a very long way of introducing today’s topic: the 90 year old ladies at my drawing class. My son would roll his eyes and say, Just get to the point. OK, I know I am a lateral thinker who feels I must not ignore any morsel of context. ( apologies to readers.)

I draw at a community center every Thursday afternoon. By serendipity, someone I barely knew told me there was an opening in her group. I must admit being surprised when I climbed the 2 flights to the room the first day to encounter these more than senior citizens.

I am a rather introverted person so I barely speak but over my 2 years as participant, I have begun to discover the stories of these very, very talented women:

There is Rose, likely the best drawer and certainly the most consummate portraitist of the group. I’m not sure of her exact age but she is likely in her late 80’s. She appears every class perfectly coiffed; I couldn’t look more grubby in sweats and unwashed hair. She has an elegance about her.

She confided that many years ago a teacher encouraged her parents to allow her to enrol in an art program because she had all ready revealed her ability. Her parents did change her school to Central Tech, and she hoped to continue on with a life in art; however, when her father needed a new factory worker, she was pulled from the program. In a quiet voice, Rose stated simply, “I’ve forgiven them “.

Eventually, she acquired a directorial position in a well-known arts association in the city, a job she loved because she could take as many arts classes as she wanted. She was radiant as she told me this. Her point was that you can follow your dream if you really want to.

Then there is my little Scottish friend Muriel. I know she is at least 90, and attends regularly. She has strong opinions on absolutely everything. She much prefers a clothed costume model to the nudes the rest of us want.

I think of her as a small twisted nut, wearing a little hat. Her life too contains a story : as after her first husband was killed in world War 1!!!!, she remarried an engineer from South Africa and came to Canada. She tells me she brought podiatry to Canada.

And I believe her.

She reveals that her aunt went to university in Scotland and it sounds as if she and her sister were raised in wealth. Her unmarried son lives with her. And she has a daughter pursuing a doctorate in B.C. She’s craggy and cranky. But, there is something about little Muriel, a tenacity, a clear-thinkingness, a stick-to-it-ness, a to-hell-with –the –rest of –you that attracts me. Of all the ladies in the group, I was most drawn to her and spent the first year conversing only with her. Last week, she said, as if we were real buds, “ Call me up during the holidays”. Me and a 90 year old hanging out!

I love Joan as well. She does both soft and strong watercolours of the models and their props on tiny bits of paper. The colours she uses are lush and luminescent. She drives quite a distance to attend and she has two granddaughters with the old fashioned names, Pearl and Rose. I imagine Joan teaching the girls how to paint while drinking tea from tiny childsized cups. I don’t know much about Joan’s background but once, slightly down, she revealed, “ I decided to take Joan to lunch”, and I thought why not? Treat yourself and feel special. Lovely Joan , I think, is only in her late 70’s.

Because I don’t talk much, I haven’t spoken to many although just last week I did chat with Anne whom I discovered is from Queensland, Australia but has been here since the 60’s. She said, “ You never think you will stay, but you do.”

There are some younger? members and I’ve just discovered that Maxine has 3 children like me, some grandkids and shares some of the same views we have about the younger generation, laughing at the phrase used for our grandkids by their parents, for example “use your words”, or pondering why we can’t have regular weekly suppers with the family (they are too busy with the numerous activities, of course).

But it is the spunk of the older women to attend regularly, to seriously approach their work and produce, and produce and produce excellent work. That fills me with pride and hope for old age. And this group has been together than more than 18 years. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of these women have read Marilyn French’s (1977) The Women’s Room , Simoine de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), or Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) . Last week Anne suggested I read Keith Richards’ autobiography and we both laughingly agreed that Mick Jagger is very sexy on stage.

These ladies remind me of my Auntie Marion who was a kind of mentor for me. She in a lofty manner discoursed on books, film and we shared a love of art. She bought me my first set of oil paints although I had no idea how to use them. (Presently I’m learning). She took me to Europe when I was 18 and so began my summer trips to view the originals I had studied in my art history classes. She had sparse hair and wore extravagant hats like Auntie Mame. She went to university in her middle age and knew about all things new and trendy.

My father hated her pomp, how she looked down on him as coarse and not knowledgeable in the arts- even though the work of his life was music.

Still I loved to drop by her house on Forest Hill Road, be served tea, be included in her soirees and feel grown up.

I did love her and maybe even saw her as a role model.

Until I wrote this just now I had never connected my Auntie Marion with this group of ladies. It is like John Polyani the Noble Prize writer (1986) who wrote: we know more than we think we know. Polyani’s obit reveals he considered becoming a poet, but decided to work with chemical reactions in Chemistry. I’ve almost come full circle in my praise of those lucky individuals who can commandeer both sides of the brain.

I’m interested in my revelation about my aunt, or maybe I’m only just connecting the dots of old ladies and myself.

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One thought on “Lesson from Ladies at 90

  1. How fortunate you are to love art so, and to be able to pursue it like this! Thank you for sharing the depth and texture that this type of art brings to your life, and also the interesting people that have enriched it as well. 🙂

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