Arts Everyday Living: Beyond the Tunnel–The Artist Inside–Erica’s Gift of Art

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.



The Artist Inside

Chapter 12, part II 

Erica’s Gift of Art

Gradually, though, the topic of discussion began to shift to my interests and aspirations, particularly the organization I intended to form. It was a new idea that I had been pondering since the previous summer. But in the ensuing weeks, with the encouragement and inspiration of Erica, it was soon transformed into a viable entity. Museum One, as it would eventually be called, was born within the nursing home and nurtured by one of its inhabitants.

“Ya, sounds good,” was Erica’s common refrain, as I slowly defined the purposes and structure of Museum One during our Saturday conferences. She would listen conscientiously to the details of my most recent research, gleaned from arts administration publications and how-to-manuals, my personal codes of Hammurabi and important keys to the construction of Museum One.

First, Museum On would be incorporated as a nonprofit body in the District of Columbia—a fairly simple procedure, I was discovering, requiring a brief document stating our official mission and a three-member board of directors. The main objective of Museum One would be to provide art appreciation outreach services to retirement facilities, based on the cultural resources of the art museum—varying little in its aim from the project I had originally proposed to the museums only a few years ago.

However, my second step would be to apply for tax-exemption from the IRS—this would allow me to secure funding from foundations and corporations independent of the Great Mall and its bureaucracy. Then I would at last be free to chart the direction and pace of my activities, no longer reliant on the decisions and orders of others supposedly superior to me.

Erica was increasingly intrigued with my plans, recalling her own feats of entrepreneurship and self-initiative. “The only jobs I ever had when I was employed by someone else was when I was a beautician and real estate agent,” she recounted one November Saturday, in her usual soft tones. “And even then, I decided my own schedule. Otherwise, I did everything myself. I started my own business as a fashion consultant soon after I was a beautician, I think. And also I was an art gallery director…And then this man I was friends with wanted me to start an antique store with him, but…well, what can I say, I wanted to travel some more and not get tied down,” she chuckled lightly to herself, reflecting on her former exploits.

“But don’t you think we should at least hire a lawyer to help us, Erica,” I asked in earnest frustration, attempting to return to our original subject of obtaining tax-exemption—an issue that had been troubling me.

“Oh, no, no. I wouldn’t bother. You should do everything yourself, that’s my philosophy,” she nearly shouted, startling me with both the volume of her voice and the rather radical nature of her opinion. How could anything legal be accomplished without professional advice?

Her vision of Museum One expanded, outdistancing my shortsighted expectations, gushing forth in prophetic outbursts from Saturday to Saturday.

“It should involve more than art history,” she would repeatedly lecture me, firmly seizing my concept and unabashedly reshaping it to her liking. “It should be much, much more. You should have artists come into the Home…and musicians…and dancers as well. And they can teach people, not only about the history and appreciation of the arts, but how to create art themselves…to express themselves.”

“We could have a regular arts center, right here in the Home,” she elucidated further, her enthusiasm rising. “And we could have paintings all over the place, on every wall, on every corridor.”

“Can’t you just see it!” Erica cried, her eyes glistening with the magnitude of her own projection. “And then maybe I could start painting agin, ya? I haven’t painted for years. And we could get someone to help me. To set up the easel and the canvas…and mix the paints. I can still hold the brush, although it would help if they could support my arm a little. Just an art student, that’s all I’d need. A young person. I love young people. Don’t you think we could find a young person somewhere?” She almost begged me, desperate to be assured of the possibility of her dream.

Yet her moments of exhilaration would often precipitously plunge within minutes into the bitterness of despair, her exuberant spirits weighed and crushed by years of sickness and incarceration.

“Yes, but what good will it do. These people will never understand. They are either so ignorant or so ill, that even if Picasso himself walked into the door they wouldn’t give a damn!” She would berate and curse them with an anger so intense that she left me, the most ardent believer in my cause, despondent as well.

But one morning, a few weeks before Christmas, as I entered the alcove where Capricorn was located, I noticed a painting of flowers hanging just over the cage. A poetic mass of lace like filigree, dewy white, spreading against a shadowy purple and wine surface. An impressionistic bouquet, hazily lighted, in blossoms and surrounding background, seeming to merge into each other. But I could easily discern that they were lilacs, blossoming delicately above the joyous serenading of Capricorn.

As I stopped to contemplate their ethereal beauty, I heard the buzz of Erica’s wheelchair accelerating toward me from behind.

“Do you like them?” She inquired somewhat coyly, as she adroitly stationed herself next to me.

I nodded in sincere affirmation, knowing intuitively that she had created them.

“I did them more than 20 years ago. In fact, I did a lot of lilacs, canvas after canvas, for years after I regained my eyesight. It’s a little blurred, ya? Like the Impressionists because I never saw clearly again. But this is the only one left. I’ve lost the rest of them. The ones that weren’t bought, I gave them away when I moved here. I searched a long time for this canvas of lilacs. It was hidden somewhere in my room and Margaret finally helped me find it and we decided together to hang it here.” She paused interrupting her lengthy monologue. Then she looked directly at me, her haunting lilacs lifting upward between us, buoyed by Capricorn’s jubilant song.

“It’s in honor of your organization,” she smiled shyly, perhaps embarrassed by the graciousness of her gift, “your first contribution.”




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