Arts Everyday Living: Beyond the Tunnel–Final Portrait–Do You Remember Sarah?

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.



Final Portrait

Chapter 21

Do You Remember Sarah?

I saw him across the elementary school gym, crowded with booths and tables celebrating the Senior Day Fair. He was sitting in a wheelchair, engrossed in his drawing, seeming oblivious to the activity around him. Propped against the wall behind him were at least two dozen renditions of birds, flowers, children, even a horse, mainly pen and ink, with price tags neatly placed in the left hand corners: 50 cents, $1.00, $2.00.

I wondered as I drew nearer, whether Mr. Lee would recall me and our encounter over Cezanne at Sarah’s nursing home years before.

“Hello,” I greeted him in an audible but not too pronounced voice, not wishing to interrupt his concentration. He was sketching another bird, fingers moving quickly and adeptly, obviously the effects of the stroke on his manual dexterity long gone. Had his stuttered disappeared, too? “I see you’re an artist.”

“Yes, yes,” he responded immediately, looking eagerly at me. His skin still had a grayish pallor, but he certainly had changed from the inert and passive man Alice had wheeled into our group that summer morning. “These are quite popular. Would you like to buy one?” he asked unabashedly, with the confidence of a salesman rarely refused.

I peered closely at his mini gallery. He certainly was no rival for Cezanne, the artist he had so arbitrarily judged. These picture were professionally executed–facile, unimaginative, with an easily recognizable realism that would appeal to many people. “How long did it take you to do them?” I answered his inquiry with another question.

“Oh, I can do a couple a day,” he replied nonchalantly. “For a while I wasn’t doing anything—I h-h-ad a str-oke, you know. But for the last couple of years I’ve doing them at the nursing home.” He paused reaching into his pocket, pulling out a rather worn newspaper article, and then an equally faded letter. “They put this in the newspaper last year,” he said spreading the article open briefly for my benefit. I noted that it was from The Washington Post. How did I ever overlook it?

“You see, it’s about me. And how I’ve kept working even though I was ill. But this,” he announced excitedly, waving the letter in front of me,” is what really is important. Look at it,” he commanded. “Do you see who wrote it?”

I scanned his honored treasure, a short but personal piece of correspondence with the indelible signature of an internationally renowned figure.

“She wrote it to me personally,” he emphasized, rising proudly in his wheelchair. “She or one of her friends must have seen the article about me. And then she sent me this letter thanking me for the portrait I did of her and her daughter when her daughter was a little girl.”

“I didn’t know you did a portrait of the Princess!” I exclaimed with sincere respect.

“Yes, well, I did a lot of famous people once. But I still keep working anyway. Look at all these drawings I’ve done recently. Wouldn’t you…” he began, but another potential customer walked up at that moment, diverting his attention. I quietly stepped back, enabling the two of them to better converse. I had the sense that the new arrival would purchase at least one if not two of Mr. Lee’s works.

I felt a rush of sadness and yet contentment as I turned away in the direction of another booth. Then suddenly, compulsively, I wanted to run back, to ask him one last urgent question.

“Do you remember Sarah?”




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