First Installment, April 12, 2023—Although based on real events, all names are fictitious except for Sarah and a few others.
Beyond the Tunnel: the Arts and Aging in America was published some thirty years ago, based on my experiences bringing art appreciation and the cultural resources of the art museum to older adults in the Washington, D.C. community through my non-profit organization Museum One, Inc. The world has changed since then, sometimes for the better, other times not so positively.
The concept of the tunnel was based on an actual nursing home I visited frequently in the 1980s. The facility still exists although it has been turned into an assisted living facility that I hope has been modernized. Yet, the tunnel is a state of mind, representing the ageism that continues to permeate our society. Ultimately, Beyond the Tunnel is simply a story—human and I hope, enduring—as well as a reflection of our society and ourselves.
The next chapters are about my quest to bring the vision of art to other Sarahs living in their tunnels.
And Vaudeville, Too
Chapter 17, Part II (continued from June 25)
On with the Show
But I was still one of his stars, along with Rembrandt, Monet, Van Gogh, Michelangelo, and O’Keeffe. A stellar cavalcade of artists, all given the red carpet treatment. For the first time, I felt like a real lecturer: lectern, microphone, pointer, and a pulldown screen (that never needed adjustment).
I loved standing out in front of what seemed an orchestra of humanity, waiting expectantly in the partial darkness. The artist–the composer, the painting—the symphony, and I—the conductor, directing my ensemble, occasionally dissonant, a bit out of sync, yet ultimately playing together. A gathering representing the intricate geography of Friendship land, it hierarchy of of “ins” and “outs”: the leaders and followers, organizers and eccentrics, the caretakers and the protected. Woodie, 90, originally from West Virginia, always ruled the sessions, enthroned in the front row, like a rustic queen. She was an earthy, dominating woman, and never reluctant to express her opinions.
“I haven’t been to an art museum in my life,” she would declare repeatedly, “and I don’t know a thing about art, but every time I come here, I see something different and new in the paintings, that I’ve never imagined before.”
Woodie took special pleasure in the landscapes of Thomas Cole and other American artists who captured the spacious beauty of our early frontier, reminding her of childhood rides in the hills and mountains of her home state.
In the middle of the group, Dave, Mrs. S., and Mr. Graham formed the working triumvirate of Friendship, its foundation and strength, although the latter two less conspicuous than their partner. “Mr. Friendship,” Dave christened James Graham, a retired banker and world traveler, now the editor, writer, and publisher of the facility’s newsletter, as well as dutiful participant in practically every Friendship activity.
Mrs. S., a nurse like Sarah and devotee of the arts, was president of the residents’ council and jack-of-all-trades. She could do anything and be everywhere, whether assisting with the slide projector, helping to transport a disabled resident to a program, or composing a letter of recommendation for one of my grants.
Scattered throughout was a host of mainstream supporters: Dr. Rosenberg, professor of law and once an aide to President Franklin Roosevelt; Mr. Packer, formerly in public relations and advertising; Mrs. Lauter, who held the distinction of being a great-great grandmother; Mrs. Polanski, a Polish immigrant who painted Easter eggs; Mr. Thomas, an English art dealer and personal friend; and a variety of other nationalities.
On the fringe were the outsiders and oddities. Residents like Mrs. Halls and Miss Lake, gravitating uncertainly on the edge of the assemblage. Miss Lake, a timid, physically fragile being, nearly blind, yet in constant motion, compulsively entering and exiting during the hour, as if undecided whether to stay or go. In contrast, Mrs. Halls, a wren-like woman, shy, withdrawn, glued herself devoutly to her seat through every session, in honor of her deceased husband and their Sunday trips to the art museum years before.
Looming even farther back was Georgia O’Keeffe, or at least the twin of the famous American artist. A tall, austere presence, attired in the painter’s trademark long black dress, with her hair pulled tightly into the same severe white bun. Yet, just an illusion, a mirage, for she barely comprehended my lectures, being fluent only in German and French.
Somehow, though, the art linked them all. Unlike the women in the retirement homes who preferred late nineteenth French and American Impressionism—the gardens of Monet, the interiors of Mary Cassatt, the gracious ladies of William Merritt Chase, reminiscent of their own mothers and aunts–the residents of Friendship relished every period of art. Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Romanticism, even Modern were popular–from Michelangelo’s superhuman David to Georgia O’Keeffe’s desert canyons.
The participation level was inevitably high, residents enthusiastically and simultaneously commenting, discussing, interjecting, shouting, whispering, laughing. The group’s behavior overall was unpredictable, ranging from calm and controlled to explosive and volatile–shifting from reverential silence for a Rembrandt self-portrait to boisterous protest of Gauguin’s Tahiti.
“Look, I’ve been to Tahiti,” one woman yelled out after I had shown a lagoon Gauguin painted while living in the South Seas–an exotic rendering of fantasy colors. “And believe me, he had to be drunk when he painted it. Because Tahiti never, and I mean never, looked like that!”
Or the scholarly reflections of James Graham interspersed with the homespun practicality of Woodie. “Isn’t that,” Mr. Graham queried upon viewing a vase of Renoir’s wildflowers from the National Gallery of Art, “a work representative of Renoir’s developmental period, in the early 1860s I’d say, before what it is formally defined as his Impressionist style?”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” Woodie proclaimed before I could reply, “but those flowers look just like the wildflowers we used to pick when I was a girl in West Virginia!”
Sometimes the level of involvement reached a fever pitch.
“La faccia di Papa, la faccia di Papa,” Mrs. Sera, an Italian resident, implored once as Michelangelo’s Last Judgement hovered majestically on the screen. “La faccia di Papa….the face of the Pope…Michelangelo put him there,” she pointed frantically at the bottom of the Sistine Chapel’s fresco,” in the face of one of the damned in hell!”
Or when Dr. Rosenberg, adorned in his tweed jacket, wool sweater, and professorial beard, suddenly rushed up to Bonnard’s The Terrace (the same work we explored at Sarah’s home), searching intently with his cane for cats and birds.
Yet, surprisingly, Dave rarely spoke, but was often sitting, smiling, amid the commotion he had caused–pleased that he was pleasing others.
COMING NEXT: A MATTER OF MONEY
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