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 Blue Room, Chapter 3
Somewhere in the Blue Room, I discovered Sarah or, perhaps more accurately, she discovered me. It was in the meeting room where we, and the rest of the nursing home’s residents, gathered ritually every Tuesday from May to September at exactly 7:00 p.m. for our course.
And it was truly blue—blue walls, blue carpeting, and blue chairs, always a dark room, even on the most brilliant days, the windows small, high up, and heavily curtained. Outside, the last touches of light, a fading spectrum of rose pink to soft purple, flowed down the noisy avenue–pushing anxiously against speeding cars and stationary buildings, scaling precipitously the spired heights of the Cathedral.
Yet, we inside were comfortably insulated—quiet and cozy in our own blue museum of great art. One painting upon the other flashing like visions on the invisible screen before us. As if another room were being opened beyond the one we all sat in, no longer shades of blue, but yellow like the intense sun of Van Gogh, the Tahitian red of a Gauguin landscape, or the multicolored vistas of the Impressionists.
We were a mixed group, mentally and physically, a hodgepodge of wheelchairs, walkers, and canes, with a few independently mobile. Some were still articulate, able to communicate their ideas and opinions. Others, though, were less capable of contributing, their voices muted by illness, by age, by medication—expressing themselves primarily with their eyes, or an occasional smile, or simply a knowing look.
But it was the art that brought us together with a power I had never envisioned.
Sarah was the leader, practically from the beginning. She was quite a frail woman, her predominant color, white. White bun, white hair, and white skin so thin that I could effortlessly imagine the white, delicate network of bones just beneath the surface. Fragile was the word for Sarah, but only in a physical sense, for her mind remained strong. She had reached that age and condition of life where both intellect and body were now fully separate, divided, the one long ago having decided to depart from the other.
It was Sarah who led us to the paintings on the Blue Room’s walls. They were actually reproductions–prints from a variety of worldwide galleries, meticulously mounted and protected by hard, professional glass. Probably purchased by the management of the nursing home on the eve of its opening not so long ago. I had intentionally overlooked them. They seemed artificial, slick, fake, without the texture of real pigment. Nor did they, at least to me, possess that indescribable aura so essential to a living work of art.
But to Sarah each was an indisputable masterpiece, as if embodying for her all the paintings she had ever known. Her own personal exhibition that she surveyed religiously before each class—an eclectic collection ranging from Millet’s Angelus with its stock image of two peasants bowed in prayer to a soft, misty spring scene by Corot, to a pleasant, colorful Renoir of boaters relaxing in a cafe along the Seine.
Remnants of the Louvre, the Prado, and Washington’s National Gallery surrounded her as she patrolled the Blue Room’s rectangular circumference, walking in an almost sideways gait, propelled by her cane. “Just look at this picture,” she called over to me one Tuesday in June as I prepared for the upcoming session on the opposite side of the room. Hunched over the projector, I was hurriedly assembling my slides. I didn’t have time to run over to her, so I turned half-way, awkwardly twisting my head, attempting to appreciate haphazardly Bruegel’s famous Peasant Dance, It was the largest painting in the display—a boisterous celebration from the Middle Ages, with dancing, stocky peasants often colliding, clumsy and tipsy both with drunkenness and exuberance. “Look at those peasants, ” she exclaimed, underlining the figures with the end of her cane. “All that activity, all that energy. Don’t they seem to be really coming out of the picture?”
At this point, two or three residents had entered the Blue Room, early arrivals for the class (although no one ever preceded Sarah). I was almost relieved to see them; now Sarah would have a more attentive audience than myself. “Oh Mrs. Banks,” I heard her greeting one of them. “I’m so glad that you could finally come.” Another new recruit, I surmised, as I watched the expanding gathering before the Bruegel. In only a few sessions, Sarah, I knew had increased our membership considerably. From a group of 8, we were now edging past 15. My most enthusiastic student was also doubling as my leading publicist—a one woman advertising campaign.
At first, I hadn’t noticed Sarah. She seemed to have blended in with the rest of her peers; another older lady, neatly attired in a modest dress of light silk or cotton, accompanied by a friend or two. She was one of the few still able to navigate, if slowly, the halls of the nursing home, usually moving in supportive pairings, shoring each up as they listed and swayed to their mutual destinations.
They were always gracious and soft-spoken, inevitably complimentary to me, at times embarrassingly adoring—amazed. above all, by my evident youth. “How do you know so much about art, dear? You look like a teenager. Why you must be just out of school!” These were their most frequent comments to me, expounded just before or after class. I sensed, sometimes, their envy, even awe of my chronological status—their unified yearning to be young again, if only for a moment.
Sarah was different. She quietly appeared after the fourth session, near the end of May, which I had devoted to Impressionist art and music—a painting of Monet’s waterlilies and Debussy’s orchestrations. Not an original idea, but genuinely effective. Our group, I believed, had responded well to the combination.
She stood, staring solemnly at me, crisply dressed in a white starched blouse and freshly ironed brown skirt. I detected initially some hesitation on her part, as if she were waiting for me to approach, to utter the first word. Why was she so shy, I wondered? The other residents were already exiting the Blue Room, and we were on the verge of being alone.
But then she spoke, as firmly, clearly as she could. “I want to tell you how moved I was tonight. I’ve never had such a beautiful experience.” I paused, startled. She was crying. Tears, thick and watery, were silently filling her eyes, which were her strongest feature, dwarfing the rest of her tiny body. They were large, wide, and prone to blinking, rimmed with a curving line that seemed to peak at the sides in two sharp indentations. Like a bird’s eyes, I thought, but with humanity.
I was speechless, ashamed to witness the elderly woman’s emotions. She was a stranger to me. I felt almost like a voyeur, guiltily viewing what I had, in fact, caused. But Sarah continued talking, unabashed by the reality of her own tears. “I brought this article for you. I thought you might like to look at it, ” she said, offering a yellowing, undated magazine clipping on the Impressionists. “I’ve had it for years. It’s from Life magazine, I think. Do you know any of these paintings?” I peered conscientiously at a Renoir, a Monet, a Degas, their tinted tones, discolored with age. The article must have been at least 20 years. “Yes, yes. They’re mainly from the Louvre—actually the Jeu de Paume, the special museum for Impressionist art,” I answered.
“That’s where I thought they were from,” she said, nodding happily in affirmation, cheered by the accuracy of her memory. The tears were beginning to dissolve. “I can’t read small print anymore, so I wasn’t sure. You know, I’ve been a nurse most of my life. So I don’t know that much about art. But if you need any help, I’ll try to always be here for you.”
COMING NEXT: THE PAINTING AS A WORLD
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