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.
This next chapter is about another tunnel and a special person I will never forget.
The One and Only Matisse
Chapter 5, part I
(Google Still Life with Apples on a Pink Tablecloth, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
A Matisse was hovering before us on the screen, one sultry evening in mid-July, an early still life, circa 1924, filled with pieces of yellow and green fruit randomly displayed over the surface of a masterfully pink tablecloth, marked by a sudden, dominant bump in its middle. A solitary china pitcher, delicately decorated with rose and leaf patterns, peeked gently from behind the minor mountain range of material, while a zigzagging expanse of florid blue-and-white growths bombarded the background. Two pineapple-hued bands, lush and gaudy, hung down heavily on opposite sides, attempting to frame the table and its arrangement.
I described and embellished the painting with my usual litany on the miracle of its color, light, space, and form, although personally I found it an awkward rather embarrassing concoction by the French master. I planed to move quickly on to what I considered more appealing and satisfying works of art by Matisse.
“But do you understand that painting?” asked Mr. Ginsburg, a bespectacled man, normally cheerful in outlook and bearing despite being confined to a wheelchair. A former accountant, he had become one of our most articulate participants, especially since our ventures into the nebulous realm of modern art. His professional predisposition to logic, order, and a rational solution had already been considerably tested during our two preceding sessions on Gauguin and the early Picasso.
Good question, I thought. I had not idea why Matisse had created it. Maybe he was having a bad day. I tried, though, to maintain my neutrality for the group. “Well,” I started to explain.
Mr. Ginsburg interrupted me, determined to express in detail his concerns about the painting. “Everything about it bothers me. First, that tabecloth–the way it’s pushed up at the top. Why is that? Does it have something underneath it? And what’s with that wall?”
“Well, it does have an unusual background,” I agreed. “Unusual” was my favorite term when I disliked something. What else could I say? I walked closer to the slide, as if reexamining it–a ploy I used to stall for time.
Sarah saved me. “It’s probably a curtain with a floral design. I like it…because of the movement,” She paused carefully weighing her next words. “The flowers..almost look like clouds moving across the sky.”
Mr. Ginsburg, who was sitting next to her near the light of the slide projector, turned toward her, his upper body pivoting eagerly in his wheelchair. “Do you really think so?” he inquired, puzzled, yet awed by his fellow resident’s creative powers. “That’s amazing. I hadn’t thought of it that way….” his voice trailing off in contemplation, intrigued and mystified. Then his lifetime of practicality reasserting itself, he announced, “But no flowers are that big! Look at those white ones in particular. They’re twice the size of a normal flower.”
“Maybe they are some type of exotic flowers,” the nameless woman (for some reason, I could never remember who she was) adorned in a polyester pantsuit, teased auburn wig, and purple eyeshadow suggested helpfully. I was still uncertain whether she was a volunteer or resident. She seemed younger than the others in her apparel and coiffure; her cosmetic enhancements from Maybelline and Max Factor set her apart from the other women in the room.
Her behavior differed, too. Like Sarah, who I felt had quietly assumed responsibility for the spiritual well-being of each member of the group, the Maybelline lady was the caretaker of their physical selves. With the clucking patience of a mother hen, she checked and supervised the frailer residents’ arrivals and departures. If one of them unexpectedly stumbled entering the Blue Room or faltered while easing into a chair, she was instantly by his or her side, solicitously providing a needed arm of support and encouragement.
“You know, you could be right,” I said, always pleased to include her in the discussion.
“Even if they are overgrown zinnias, I don’t like them or the paintings,” Mrs. Stevens, the retired schoolteacher proclaimed form the left edge of our gathering. “It’s too busy.”
I laughed to myself. I rather enjoyed her combativeness. Sarah and Mr. Ginsburg, I observed were not so amused. Sarah was stiffening like a fragile ramrod, rising with the leverage of her omnipresent cane, while Mr. Ginsburg, was slumping downward in obvious dissension.
“It’s not so bad…once your get used to it,” he muttered, forgetting temporarily his own criticisms of the Matisse. “Why don’t you ask some of the others what they think?”
I glanced urgently around the room, seeking of necessity a fresh, new opinion. I preferred to keep the atmosphere and dynamics positive, upbeat. My rule was arbitrator and compromiser, to maintain balance and accord. Individuals might disagree, but we must all recognize and tolerate varying and, at times, conflicting interpretations of a work of art.
Who should I choose from the mass of people surrounding me in the semidarkness?…
COMING NEXT: DISCOVERING MATISSE IN THE BLUE ROOM WITH SARAH AND HER FRIENDS
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