Arts Everyday Living: Beyond the Tunnel–Arts & Aging–The Last Day, Isn’t Matisse Wonderful

Although based on real events, all names are fictitious except for Sarah.

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 chapters are about another tunnel and a special person I will never forget.




The Last Day

Chapter 9, Part I

Isn’t Matisse Wonderful?

(Google Matisse, Interior with Egyptian Curtain, 1948, Phillips Collection–Another Look)

The course was suddenly over at the end of the summer—on the Tuesday just after Labor Day. I was planning on featuring Paul Klee, one of my favorite artists that evening and I was excited at the prospect. I also had a surprise for my class. An exhibition of Matisse’s cut-outs was opening the next day at the National Gallery of Art and perhaps a few of the more mobile residents might be able to attend.

But when I walked into the Blue Room only Sarah and Paul, Alice’s new assistant, were waiting. They sat with their backs facing me, obviously engrossed in each other’s conversation. Paul, who was exceptionally tall and lanky, nearing 6 feet 6 inches, towered over Sarah, dwarfing her with the dual vitality of his youth and height.

I noticed immediately that nothing had been set up: no slide projector, no screen, and no seating arrangements. Paul must have pulled their two blue chairs from the pile of others stacked along the perimeter of the Blue Room. I could feel myself becoming increasingly annoyed.

“Where is everybody?” I shouted into the room, intentionally disrupting their tete-a-tete. Paul, startled, turned rapidly around, shooting up to his full stature, eclipsing Sarah from my view.

Although he was at least in his early twenties, Paul had a boyishness about him—a choir boy countenance of innocence and openness. His wholesome blue eyes stared back at me without self-consciousness, hooded only by his elementary school style of glasses. His sandy locks coiffured a la Peter Pan—short with bangs, a hint of a cowlick rising in the back.

“I don’t know,” he answered with apparent regret. “I just can’t seem to find anyone tonight.”

“That’s funny,” I countered, impolitely revealing my skepticism. “We usually have plenty of people.”

“Well, maybe a lot of them are sick,” he replied, unperturbed, shrugging off my challenge. “It’s probably just been one of those days….”

“Well, I just don’t understand it!” Sarah declared adamantly, as she struggled to rise from her blue chair and to free herself from the obstructing wall of Paul’s sizable frame. Belatedly, he stepped aside, and then reaching over, attempted to ease her ascent—a gentlemanly gesture Sarah predictably refused, brushing away his hand with more than usual emphasis. Paul, surprised, drew back, and looked away—embarrassed, I was certain by his error.

“I saw Mr. Ginsburg earlier today, and Mrs. Gerasimov, and Mr. Lee,” she persisted, gently listing her fellow residents for us. “And I know Mrs. Stevens has returned from the holiday and…”

Paul cut her off curtly. “I’m sorry, Miss Jones, I just can’t find anyone tonight!” he said harshly, peering down at her from above. “But,” he quickly added, before I could interfere, his tone sweetening instantly with condescension, “because it’s you, I’ll look again….O.K.?”

“Could you?” Sarah was pleading, uncharacteristically, with him. ” Could you?” she asked again, her voice trembling with excitement. “Especially when Miss Hart has come all this way for us in the nursing home.”

“Of course,” Paul earnestly assured Sarah, metamorphosing adroitly into the next-door boy scout whose sole mission in life is to propel elderly ladies safely across America’s streets. “Of course,” he repeated, practically saluting her, as he strode toward the door. “Don’t worry. I shall return.”

At first, after Paul’s departure, Sarah and I did not speak. Silence between us was unnatural, but even more so now, especially considering her emotionally charged exchange with Paul only a few minutes ago. I had never seen her that agitated before. Didn’t I detect an undertone of desperation in her pleas for Paul’s cooperation. What was wrong? Where was the calm and self-possessed Sarah who had led us through the world of art that summer?

Her appearance, though, was unchanged. She was meticulously dressed as always, wearing a starched light yellow blouse adorned with the customary gold circle pin, a beige skirt, and the inevitable bun. I watched her as she haltingly backed herself down into her blue chair, shaking as she descended. I knew she was weakening—the signs of decline were blatantly evident. And yet, like most human beings confronted with the demise of a friend or loved one, I chose to ignore them.

Following her example, I seated myself in the place Paul had recently vacated and pushed closer to Sarah. The Blue Room seemed empty and hollow tonight, a carpeted desert, devoid of people or chairs, except for the tiny oasis of companionship that Sarah and I presently shared.

“I’m sorry, Joan,” she finally uttered, her long, thin fingers nervously enfolding mine. The bird-shaped eyes, strangely smaller, blinked briefly at me, than veered guiltily away, toward the direction of the floor.

“Sarah, it’s not your fault Paul couldn’t find anyone for class,” I tried to reassure her, gently pressing her hand.

“No, it’s not that. I owe you an apology,” she argued, determined to be at fault. “I never thanked you properly for the beautiful print you gave me. I should have at least sent you a thank you note.”

I had nearly forgotten my gift—the Interior with Egyptian Curtain by Matisse at the Phillips that Sarah and I had discussed after class a month or so before.

“You don’t know how much it means to me. I look at it everyday,” she confided, now gazing with trancelike intensity at the wall straight ahead, visualizing the painting for both of us on some airy, imaginary canvas. The high, closed window, the luxurious palm tree looming just outside, the rich, multishaded Egyptian curtain, the bright pink table with the powdery blue bowl of fruit casting a deep, infinite shadow.

“Remember the colors,” she unexpectedly whispered, her tone hushed and secretive, as if we were closeted together in a confessional. “Particularly the black. You don’t know how much that disturbed me,” she reluctantly admitted, clasping my hand tighter. “It was everywhere…in too many places, really. The curtain, the window, even the palm tree.”

“That’s why,” she paused, pivoting her delicate head directly toward me, so that her remarkable avian eyes seemed to be penetrating my very soul. “That’s why I wanted you to buy it for me so I could try to figure it out.” Her voice grew louder, more insistent. “I don’t believe in running from anything, and the black had something menacing about it…oppressive…reminding me almost of ….” she waited, concluding solemnly, “….death.”

That final word sounded slowly, ominously, like a funeral knell throughout the Blue Room. I shivered uncontrollably, hoping that it was only the air conditioning. Sarah stopped abruptly, worriedly appraising my reaction. “I’m sorry again. I’m afraid that I’m upsetting you.  I shouldn’t be talking about such things.”

“Oh no,” I cheerfully urged her onward, pretending to be unconcerned. “Please…it’s…” I hesitated, groping for a neutral comment. “It’s very interesting…really.”

“But then I remembered,” Sarah eagerly continued her recitation, as if never interrupted, “what you told me about Matisse’s philosophy…his love of nature and life. And I realized that the black had to stand for something else. Do you understand what I mean?”

I nodded in mute compliance.

“So I studied it everyday, all times of day. And do you know what I found,” she started giggling, as if discovering some ingenious joke. “That it was simply the sunshine coming through the window. You know how bright the sunshine can be…so bright, it’s dark. Doesn’t that make sense?”

I felt obligated to respond, no how matter superficially. “You mean like the contrast between black and white,” I began professorially, “In other words, one makes the other brighter…and the other makes the other darker.” No, that was not quite right. “Or,” I pursued the subject rather murkily, “like a patch of sunshine in a darkened room…because of the contrast, the sunshine seems even brighter. And yet it has a blackness to it as well because of the very intensity of the contrast…a sort of bright darkness..or dark brightness.”  Was I making sense?

“Yes, that’s it!” Sarah cried, laughing openly now, her antique frame convulsing with youthful joy. “Isn’t it fantastic!” she deliriously proclaimed, her body and cane both threatening to topple forward, intoxicated not by advancing age, but with the sheer ecstasy of her own revelation. “Isn’t Matisse wonderful?”

I automatically grabbed Sarah, instinctively blocking her plunge downward. Why was she behaving this way? What was so funny? I glanced with mounting alarm toward the door from which Paul had exited hours, it seemed, before. Was he ever going to return?

“Sarah,” I ventured, searching for any topic that might in effect sober her up. Then recalling the announcement I had originally planned for class tonight, I practically yelled in Sarah’s nearest ear, “Do you know about Matisse’s cut-out exhibition?”




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