Artistic Creativity as Renewal in Eldering

Editor's note: Richard Matzkin, M.A., is a sculptor, jazz musician, author, and retired psychotherapist. Richard has had numerous one-man shows, and his sculptures are in collections throughout the United States. He and his wife, Alice, are authors of the much-honored book, The Art of Aging: Celebrating the Authentic Aging Self. They live in Ojai, California. Contact Richard through the Web site: www.matzkinstudio.com/.



Creative expression is an essential aspect of the human spirit. In every place on the globe, in every era from prehistoric times to the present, humans have engaged in the creative arts.

The active aspects of artistic creativity involve an individual taking that which is free to be molded — be it art materials, musical notes, written words, vocalization, or body movement — and manipulating it in a way that becomes a personal expression. Its counterpart is passive appreciation, which also demands creativity. Just as creating art can evoke thought and feeling in the one creating it, experiencing that art — listening to or watching a performance, or viewing an art piece — can also evoke thought and feeling in the participant.

Photo of Richard Matzkin by Donna Granata, from her Focus on
the Masters Protrait series.

Much has been written about the power of the arts to heal. More recently, with the graying of our population, there has been a shift of focus onto elders. Research has shown that while certain aspects of brain function decline with age, such as short-term memory, speed of recall, and reaction time, creativity can remain relatively untouched and flourish throughout the life cycle.

In a landmark study by the late Gene Cohen, M.D., elders who engaged in group participatory visual art programs (average age 80) exhibited general improvement in physical and mental health, including reduced medication and fewer doctor visits. A study by the Medical School of New York University found that Alzheimer’s patients exhibited fewer problems, increased self-esteem, elevated mood, and improved social interaction following visits to art museums.

My own experience as a sculptor and jazz musician provides a hint as to what might be occurring during the creative act that would account for these healing effects. As I engage in sculpting or playing music, I enter an altered state of consciousness akin to meditation. My discursive mind turns off or fades into the background; I am not aware of my body; time ceases to exit; there is no past, no future, only the present moment. All that exists is fingers moving clay or the flow of the music.

One doesn’t have to be a professional artist, musical genius, or Zen master to enter this flow. My wife, Alice, a painter, and I have conducted beginner’s art workshops for adults at community colleges, taught art to children, and worked using art therapy in psychiatric hospitals. Almost invariably, as a roomful of people become absorbed in their work, the silence and the sense of peace in the room are palpable.

The act of creation is a living, breathing process. You are giving birth to something from deep inside yourself — your unique expression. Creating a piece of art presents you with the opportunity to proclaim, “This may not be a masterpiece, but this is who I am This is what I have created!” This can be especially satisfying and empowering for elders, who see their sense of control and authority gradually slip away as they age and become less “productive.”

Another factor that makes creative work so engrossing is the element of surprise, of improvisation. As the composer composes, the artist paints, the poet writes, each note, each brush stroke, each word is an exploration that carries the artist along into the unknown. I watched a film, shot over a period of several days, of Picasso painting a portrait. In that time the painting went through numerous transformations before Picasso finally brought it to completion. This element of exploration, of stepping into the unknown, is the very essence of creativity, and it is the antithesis of stagnation. Stagnation — being bored, listless, uninvolved — can be a plague of the elder years, when the weight of disability or a “been there, done that” attitude can dampen one’s vitality. Stagnation is as deadly as any disease.

 
 

In this beautiful book, painter and sculptor Alice and Richard Matzkin explore the experience of aging through their art, finding inspiration rather than despair. The Matzkins — now in their late 60s and early 70s — use their paintings, sculptures. and personal narrative to examine aspects of growing older: the progression of physical changes, sensuality and relationships, aging parents, spirituality, and death. They feature well-known people such as feminist Betty Friedan and potter Beatrice Wood, as well as friends, neighbors, relatives, and themselves. They both explore the older nude body in some of their work. Drawing on their own experiences and the wisdom of older mentors, they demonstrate that the elder years can be a time of growth and wisdom rather than stagnation and loss. This wonderfully illustrated book is a feast for the eyes as well as nurturing to the spirit, and it leads to a greater appreciation of the miracle and blessing of life.
 

 

Artistic creation has played an important role in my renewal and also that of my wife Alice. Both of us possessed artistic gifts as we were growing up — skills which lay fallow as we were raising children and pursuing careers. In our 40s, our creative fires were rekindled and we returned to painting and sculpting. As we entered our 50s and felt the physical effects of aging, we began to use our art as a way to explore our issues about growing old and dying. Thus began a series of projects related to aging that brought our fears and anxieties to the surface where they could be consciously experienced, worked through, and transformed into understanding. Those projects — portraits of inspiring elder women; sculptures of old men in dissolution; paintings of elder nude women; sculptures of old couples in tender embrace; and sequential portraits of an aunt ages 89–97, showing the progressive effects of age on the body — helped us come to a deeper acceptance of and understanding about our own process of aging, and led us to value the preciousness of each present moment.

In time, we were able to add another medium to our creative arsenal, writing. Inspired by the focus that our artwork brought, we authored an award-winning book, The Art of Aging: Celebrating the Authentic Aging Self. With speaking engagements and additional projects, we find ourselves today, at ages 68 and 71, busier, more creative, and more engaged than at any other period in our lives.

Age is no barrier to creativity. Examples abound of elder artists whose creative production extends into late old age. Our neighbor, the potter Beatrice Wood, continued drawing and throwing pots until she was 105 years old. The autumn and winter of life is an optimum time for engaging in creative activity. Retirement and liberation from child rearing allows leisure time for exploration into creative resources. Elders have more life experience to draw upon to fuel artistic endeavors. Wisdom, wider perspective, and maturity of years lived can allow creativity to blossom with greater depth and richness. And that creative juice can invigorate the body, vitalize the mind, and renew the spirit in our elder years.
 


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