The Art of Aging: New Exhibit Explores Pleasures of Becoming Older
Photo: (left to right) Mary Kainer, Ramune Luminaire and Judith A. Mason.
The sparkling, naked dancer catches your eye the moment you enter the gallery. Poised en pointe on one foot, arms akimbo, head exuberantly thrown back, she’s having a surprising moment for someone with a plump, grandmotherly body. It’s a defiant pose, for artist Ramune Luminaire has placed her sculpture on a plinth etched with words sometimes used to describe older women—among them: dowdy, confused, withered, lonely, invisible, unsteady, hysterical. “I never thought I’d see a body like mine up on a pedestal,” one woman told Luminaire, tears brimming in her eyes. Aptly enough, the sculpture bears the label “About Time.”
Coming of Age, an exhibition of multimedia work by Luminaire, Judith A. Mason and Mary Kainer—all of them 60-ish—explores the ambivalence, fear, joy and pleasures of becoming older. Aging, it seems, is a universal but also deeply personal experience. Mary Kainer tackles the subject in a section called “Body/Burden” that includes a video of various older women who hide behind their hands. Over time, they expose more and more of their faces. Expressions differ, but are not dramatic. Here I am at this moment in my life, they seem to wonder, so what am I to make of it?
A back injury Kainer suffered inspired ceramic sculptures depicting her pain, but several scrolls comprise the majority of pieces in her part of the show. “Her drawings are often politically based, very research-based,” Luminaire notes. The pieces present hard facts and statistics about health problems people often face with age, such as cancer or the side effects of over-medication and the difficulty of withdrawal from prescribed psychotropic drugs. One drawing deals with osteoporosis: in it, extensions of the lower vertebrae somehow become long fingers, yet like all of the scrolls, it’s beguilingly rendered. In fact, Kainer, a decades-long environmental activist, confessed that she’d learned from experience in that fraught field that people were more willing to take in unpleasant facts if they were presented within a beautiful context. Indeed, onlookers peer closely at her dementia scroll, an abstract featuring three fungal-like figures. Strips of old phonebook pages subtly create texture, reinforcing the problem of remembering a name—alluded to in random lists of names.
Judith A. Mason opened the Coming of Age show at the Visual Arts Centre of Clarington in Bowmanville, Ont., with a performance of “I Do Not Want a Silent Spring,” a poem by Judith Graham, and four days later headed to Cairo, Egypt, where she teaches visual arts and drama in a Canadian school. Like the poem of a woman’s thoughts and remembrances as she waits for a possible devastating medical diagnosis, Mason’s art reveals her inner feelings. A group of felted marionette-like figures suggests past family dramas, but most of her work here takes the form of colourful abstract paintings, often displayed as diptychs or triptychs. “Ariadne and the Minotaur,” (left) raises emotions of both regret and liberty around the inevitable end of fertility. “What a gift life is,” Mason reflects. “Being 60 makes you look at life differently. Really, we are just getting going. We’ve done our families—we may have done our husbands—and we have a time in our life to think about what it is all for, and how we want to spend the next however much time we have before we leave.”
Sometimes we suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune—or as Ramune Luminaire portrays in “Virtues and Vicissitudes”—the unpredictable snakes and ladders of life. She surveyed 60 women who were 60 or older to discover their hopes, dreams and fears about aging, which she incorporated in a large wall piece of 40-wooden squares representing ages from 60 to 99. Sometimes snakes deliver horrible losses, such as the death of a spouse or grandchild, or illnesses—including dementia. Friendships, travel to exotic places, learning and even the gift of pretty flowers create lifting ladders. Luminaire says she wanted the final square at 99 to feel like winning, and possibly, like dying—and possibly like that wasn’t the worst thing in the world. Inspired by a dandelion, she got the feeling she wanted with an abstract image that looks “luminous and planetary and soft.”
All of us have a back-story, influences of people and things that have or will, bring us to the age of 60. A climb to the third floor of the heritage building, a mill that once dispensed plaid boxes of MacKay’s Cream of Barley cereal across Canada and beyond, introduces a chance to snoop though the artist’s lives. They’ve created “The Attic”, a welcoming installation that invites visitors to poke through drawers, reminisce about old games, touch out-of-fashion clothing and toys, as well as to flip through their past work and even an art school thesis. It’s a cluttered, cosy environment—we’ve all held onto stuff at some point—and offers a glimpse into the elements that influenced these women’s artistic and emotional lives. And yes, there’s even a worn paperback edition of Simone de Beauvoir’s groundbreaking and challenging work, The Coming of Age.
Aging is a process all of us will face at some point. It makes sense then, to explore and look to role models for living well through this often risky time of life, defying those who haven’t come to an understanding of the value that lies in being an elder. As Dr. George E. Vaillant, former director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development and author of Aging Well, suggests: Old age is like a minefield; if you see footprints leading to the other side, step in them!
Coming of Age: Mary Kainer, Judith A. Mason, Ramune Luminaire at the Visual Arts Centre of Clarington concludes Oct. 2, 2017 with a reception from 2 to 4 p.m., and a talk by artists Kainer and Luminaire. www.vac.ca; 143 Simpson Avenue, Bowmanville Ont.