Arts Everyday Living: Beyond the Tunnel–Sarah, Matisse & Interior with Egyptian Curtain

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 III

(Google Interior with Egyptian Interior, 1948, oil on canvas, The Phillips Collection)

After that session, Matisse became Sarah’s artist—the one, the only, the absolute artist for her. Although she would still continue to be open to the long list of other painters I planned to explore the remaining weeks of the summer (Kandinsky, Braque, Bonnard, Klee, among others) none of them could equal Henri Matisse. And yet I had only shown her three paintings during the evening—the yellow apples still life, followed by a port of geraniums circa 1912, and an interior composed as the artist was approaching his eightieth birthday, distinguished by a prominent use of black and a unique Egyptian curtain.

Unfortunately, the works considered to be Matisse’s greatest creations—The Red Studio, The Dance, the Pink Nude, and the cutouts of his final years—were not accessible to our group since my slides were then limited.  Was Sarah aware of the hundreds of other paintings, drawings, and sculptures done by Matisse over his extensive career? Or was her love and reverence of him founded on a mere three paintings?

“I had heard of him before and I had, I guess, seen a few of his paintings,” she confided to me after class a few weeks later. “But they must not have had any impact on me then. It’s funny,” she paused, lingering over her thought. “It’s incredible really, how sometimes, for years you know, you just pass something by and then much later, it becomes the most important thing in your life. Do you know what I mean?”

Intellectually, I did, but emotionally and spiritually, I could only imagine. I felt so shallow and young in comparison to this aged being sitting by my side.

Tonight she was wearing a print blouse—softer, more feminine in appearance with full sleeves, despite the summer season, perhaps to disguise the rail thinness of her arms. Her eyes seemed more prominent than ever, blinking steadily at me as she waited expectantly for my answer.

“Yes, yes, I understand what you mean,” I lied as confidently as I could, attempting to boldly meet her gaze.  But I had to quickly, guiltily look down, my eyes distracted briefly by the polished circle of the gold circle pin that Sarah habitually wore—geometric, modern in design, an anachronism among the brooches and pearls of her contemporaries. It flashed hypnotically outward into the semi light of the Blue Room, like some mythological symbol of antiquity or the revolving disc of the Chinese yin and yang.

Mesmerized, I stared blankly at its eternal configuration. What did I really know anyway? Why was Sarah always asking questions I couldn’t honestly answer? I was too tired after my eight hour office day to deal with philosophical ruminations about life. My schedule was overly crammed with timetables and deadlines, including this weekly series. I just didn’t have enough time to seriously contemplate mine or anyone else’s existence.

Yet, I felt obligated to stay since Sarah and I hadn’t talked since the Matisse program, our post-session conversations having become a ritual for both of us. Where, I wondered, has she been last week and the session before? And why had she arrived late this evening?

“Don’t worry, I’m fine,” she had responded curtly, almost hostilely to me, when I interrupted my introduction to inquire about her health. I automatically had turned the lights back on so she could easily find her seat. “Please, please, don’t stop for me,” she had cried, decidedly annoyed at her special treatment.

I wanted to ask now what had been wrong, but intuitively I knew that it was forbidden. Matisse, not her medical records, was Sarah’s main concern. Maybe nurses were like doctors, expert at denying and hiding their own illnesses.

“Is there anything about his works, Sarah, that you particularly like,” I asked, deciding I’d better adhere to my responsibilities as teacher.

“I don’t know, actually. It’s the color I suppose…the beauty of it,” she spoke haltingly, in fragments of sentences, as if trying to piece together in entirety her own vision of the artist’s creations. “You know the still life with the Egyptian curtain at the Phillips Gallery, the one with all the black? In the curtain, the window, the palm tree filling the space of the window, especially in the shadow under the bowl. It’s that black,” she emphasized. “I keep seeing, more than any other colors. So bright and yet it’s black. Does that make sense?”

I didn’t know how to respond. “Maybe,” I began tentatively, not certain of how my explanation would end. “Maybe it’s the contrast with the other colors in the painting. You know, the reds, the greens, the yellows of that wild Egyptian curtain. And that pink—remember the pink of the table? It’s almost a shocking pink.  That’s the color that hits me,” I concluded enthusiastically, although I had no idea what I had actually said.

Surprisingly, Sarah seemed to comprehend. “Yes, that’s right,” she agreed. “The way the black contrasts with the other colors makes it so striking. But,” she mused further, “it’s something even deeper…something blacker…something that disturbs me…” Her voice I realized, was drifting off. Her body so near to mine was slackening, too, while the cane she always held so tightly was just beginning to slide down onto the surface of the blue carpeted floor.

“Sarah!” I had to shout, “Are you all right?”

“Yes, yes,” she jumped awakened by my vocal blast. “I’m fine,” she added firmly, reassuming her usual upright position. Despite her age and fragility, Sarah never stooped or bent; her posture was always impeccable. “I was just thinking, that’s all.”

“I really have to go, Sarah. It’s getting dark,” I reminded her.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Joan,” she apologized. “I just keep seeing that painting in my mind. You know it’s like a memory that won’t go away…and it just keeps getting stronger. Like an obsession, really,” she laughed, self-consciously. “Now I’m getting silly. Please,” she commanded me with her cane, again the instrument of her will. “Go catch your bus.”

“Don’t you want me to walk you to the elevator?” I inquired—another step in our Tuesday evening routine.

“No, go ahead. You don’t have time. I’ve held you up long enough.”

I ran over to the table by the slide projector where I had propped up my National Gallery of Art bag, plastic, its white-and-red logo proclaiming repeatedly its affiliation. I made certain it still contained my slide carousel and the prints I just purchased from the museum.

“Can I help you, my dear? Sarah asked, preparing to propel herself off her blue chair if necessary.

“Oh no, please don’t get up. I have everything. Goodbye,” I waved. “See you next week.”

“Oh, Joan,” she called after me, as I reached the door. I stopped, panicked, just one extra minute could cause me to miss my bus.

“Yes,”  I tried frantically to be patient.

“I’m sorry to delay you, but would it be possible to get me a print of that painting?”

Why did she have to ask me now. Couldn’t it wait? I was in a hurry with not a moment to spare. What was wrong with her? Had she forgotten my impending bus?

“I don’t know Sarah,” I warned her. “It’s not one of the best known of his paintings…” Then realizing my own stupidity, I cried. “Oh, what’s the matter with me.  It’s probably at the Phillips…that’s where I got the slide in the first place! Although I’m not a hundred percent sure if they have the print of it, too,” I added, preparing her for a possible disappointment.

“Well, if you can’t find it, I’ll understand,” she said, trying to sound cheerful, but I could feel the urgency of her need even from across the room.

“No, no, Sarah, I definitely will look for it.  I was going to go down to the Phillips soon anyway…I promise.”

Then, without waiting for her reply, I sped out into the descending night.





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