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 II
(Google Still Life with Apples on a Pink Tablecloth, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
Who should I choose from the mass of people surrounding me in the semidarkness? Until that moment, I hadn’t realized the metamorphosis of the Blue Room since May. The formal, parallel rows of our first meetings dissolved into a semicircle, reflecting perhaps the social network of the nursing home. At its core, the natural epicenter, the triad of Sarah, Ginsburg, and Maybelline prevailed, while its boundaries were occupied by the tall, imposing Mrs. Stevens and a subgroup of still-mobile ladies, all meticulously dressed and respectfully attentive.
To the right, though, was another block of participants, Five or six wheelchairs of the sickest and most disabled had been lined up as neatly as possible by the nurse’s aides, reminding me of human statues in a gallery waiting to be animated.
I decided to engage at least one of them. I planted myself directly before them. “What about the rest of you?” I heard my voice jumping a few decibels, but immediately lowered it when I saw a tiny woman closest to me wince, as if wounded by its volume. I bent down toward her, hoping to make amends for my unintended cruelty. She was very frail. I wondered why they had brought her here.
“Do you like that painting?” I almost whispered in contrition. Would she forgive me?
A pair of owlish eyes stared ahead, as if transfixed. “I like one of the fruits,” she answered barely audibly–the whirring sound of the slide projector’s fan nearly obscuring her words. She tried to point out her choice, weakly lifting a fingertip to the screen. Then she stopped, this motion arrested by the toll of sickness, the exertions of too long a life.
“Would you like me to do it?” Not waiting for her acknowledgment, I walked up to the screen, my fingers prepared to travel over every inch of the painting if required.
I began with a round yellow form, on the left. “Is this the one?” I asked. She said nothing so I continued onto the second, then the third, my speed slow-motion, a snail’s pace. I wondered how well she could see. I reinforced my gestures with a verbal description of each fruit.
Finally, when I reached a bright, green object, she spoke. “Yes, that’s it,” she said, nodding in affirmation. “That’s it,” she repeated, making certain that I truly understood.
I moved over to her and touched her hand, acknowledging her accomplishment. But she had already begun to retreat into her invalid’s cocoon, shutting her eyes in total exhaustion, lost again to the rest of us.
“Well, I have nothing against the fruit,” Mr. Ginsburg called out behind me, startling me.” Although I can’t quite figure them out. I don’t remember…did you tell us before what they were?” I turned around almost relieved to view the quizzical face. I marveled at his need to know precisely what type of fruit was on the table. Strange, it was a detail I often skipped over, more concerned with the texture of the brushtrokes or the three dimensional quality of the shapes.
“Its title is Yellow Apples on a Pink Tablecloth so….” I added, feeling a bit foolish by the obviousness of my answer. “I guess they must be apples then. Except for the green fruit. Whatever that is….”
“That’s a lime dear,” the Maybelline lady explained to me with, I sensed, a hint of condescension in her tone.
“Those are peaches,” Mrs. Stevens instructed us loudly, “not apples especially the one at the bottom of the table!”
“Miss Hart said the title was Yellow Apples on a Pink Tablecloth,” Mr. Ginsburg snapped back, the display of testiness not in character. I wondered if more than a difference about art provoked his behavior. “Anyway, what do I know? I haven’t taken art since I was ten years old,” he concluded, suddenly dejected.
I had to think of something quickly, to bolster him. I was unprepared for the mood swings of some of the residents—the up-and-down syndrome of vitality and despair in just the span of an hour.
Sarah, though, calmly interceded. “They can be perhaps anything we want to see…anything. Maybe that’s what Matisse wants—for us to imagine what fruit we are seeing.”
How did she know what to say, and so simply, so clearly? I couldn’t have expressed it better. Perhaps Sarah’s observation might not exactly agree with Matisse’s intentions (I still had much research to do on his philosophy and so could not make a learned assessment of her observation), but she offered the others in our group a spectrum of possibilities and alternatives beyond the concrete reality that so many of them doggedly continued to pursue.
What did an apple really look like? Did it have to be a certain color and size? Why couldn’t it sometimes resemble a peach or pear or an orange? Did the artist actually care if we mistook one object for another? And maybe by the time he completed the last apple it did appear more like a peach or any other type of fruit to his inner eye, transformed by hours of concentration and creativity.
However, even Matisse might not have been prepared for the next comment from the remotest part of the Blue Room.
“Do you see the face?” I heard someone whisper.
“Face? What face? What did you say?” I called out, not certain of its source. Maybe I should turn on the lights. The sharp, high beam of the projector seemed to be inexplicably dim. Where was she–if it was a she?
“It’s a man, can’t you see?”
I looked over to Sarah for guidance. She smiled, mysteriously, enigmatically, as if guarding some private secret, and then gestured toward the direction of Mrs. Stevens.
“Can’t you see him?” The faint pattern of sound was becoming stronger, more audible. I tried to track it like radar to its source. Yes, I could almost detect her now, in the far back, partially eclipsed by Mrs. Stevens. Why hadn’t I seen her before? Or more accurately seen the wheelchair with the remnants of a person. So slight, so delicate, and pale that I wondered if she had already vanished in body—only an aura remaining, like the halo around an otherworldly visitor who might soon disappear.
“What?” I asked hesitantly, perhaps reluctant to admit that she was truly there.
“He’s in the wallpaper. With his dog.”
“Well…I don’t know,” I began to protest.
“Why not,” Mr. Ginsburg contended. What had happened to his accountant’s practicality? “If that’s what she sees. It’s a weird painting, anyway.”
“It certainly could be. You know it’s the design,” Mrs. Stevens joined in, surprisingly fascinated by her neighbor’s discovery. Perhaps the other’s proximity was affecting her usual steady judgment. “Although I like to think it’s a wild animal, some kind of wolf. Can’t you make out the head and the ears?”
I could hear a ripple of conjectures among the rest of the group. How about a bear? Or a mask? Or a bird? “Yes, definitely a bird,” one of Mrs. Stevens’ ladylike associates shouted out. “That’s it. You’re right,” her companion, in turn, confirmed as they both strained simultaneously toward the screen.
“How many do you see?” a third friend inquired politely. “Only one!” the duo chimed together, giggling.
What was happening to my class? It must be contagious, even Sarah was chattering to Mr. Ginsburg about clouds and birds. And where was that strange, disembodied force who had initiated this clamor? I somehow couldn’t locate her now. Had a nurse’s aide silently pushed her out in just the last few minutes?
“Knock it off,” I wanted to yell, employing one of my own generation’s invectives. “Ok, Ok,” I directed them, partially remembering that they could be my grandparents. “I think….we must go onto to the next painting.”
“Just a minute,” Mr. Ginsburg signaled me from his wheelchair. “You haven’t explained the bump in the tablecloth!” Then he laughed. “I’m only kidding. It doesn’t really matter what it is, does it? Because you know ….” He stopped abruptly, in mid-sentence, as if fully comprehending the Matisse for the first time. “It is a beautiful painting. Those colors, ” his tone softening in emotion, “are a revelation. Can you believe I used that word? The pink, especially with a yellow and green. How did he do it?”
“He was a genius, ” Sarah responded, matter-of-factly, as if she had always known, “He understood everything.”
“Well then he was a genius,” Mr. Ginsburg concurred. “And even I understand him.”
COMING NEXT: SARAH AND MATISSE’S INTERIOR WITH AN EGYPTIAN TABLECLOTH
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