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Commentary: Creativity and aging can go hand in hand when it comes to the arts

Nancy Kranzberg

A few evenings ago, my husband and I had dinner with two creative and inspiring senior citizens. Frank Schwaiger at age 78 continues to design buildings, build sculptures, paint and be creative in every way, shape and form. Our mutual friend, Leslie Laskey, 96, professor emeritus at Washington University, is still a revered artist and teacher. When Laskey spoke at the Bruno David Gallery a few weeks before, every eye, heart and mind was enraptured by his words and enthusiasm.

A few years ago, in Palm Springs, California, I went to a production of ''The Follies," where members of the cast of this wonderful variety show had to be 55 or older. The performers were amazing. The chorus line consisted of women from their 50s into their 80s doing high kicks and intricate dance routines. They were terrific, but no matter how great of a shape one is in, the body only holds up to a certain degree.

These experiences made me think of aging and creativity in the arts. Bob Bennett and Gene Dobbs Bradford of Jazz St. Louis reminded me that Toots Thilemans, world class harmonica player who recently died, played professionally well into his nineties and that Jimmy Cobb, drummer who played with Miles Davis, is well up in years and still drumming away. Also, Houston Person, 83, and Freddie Cole, 86, recently played on the Jazz at the Bistro program in Grand Center.

The Crown Center for Senior living had a fund raiser at the Soulard Preservation Hall. The Crown Center has a fund supporting participatory arts programming for older adults - helping them to remain active, creative, and engaged. Lynn Hamilton of "Maturity and its Muse" was honored for her work with seniors in the arts. "Maturity and its Muse" was founded in 2009 by Ms. Hamilton to promote positive and productive aging through the arts.

We've all heard of Grandma Mosses, but we have our own cadre of visual artists right here in St. Louis. Lynn Hamilton recently curated an art exhibition at The Sheldon Art Galleries featuring artists who are still actively working in their 70s. Olivia Lahs-Gonzales, the director of the Sheldon Art Galleries, says, "When Lynn Hamilton came to me with the idea to curate an exhibition of work by St. Louis area artists over 70, I enthusiastically found space for the show in our Galleries. I understood that this would be a fantastic opportunity to showcase some of the finest artists working in our metropolitan region, many of whom have national careers."

Michael Uthoff, past director of "Dance St. Louis," reminded me that Paul Taylor, world renowned choreographer, founded his own dance company years ago, and is well up in years and is still working and highly regarded in the dance world. And Scott Miller, artistic director of New Line Theatre, said that American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who has won both Tony Awards, Academy Awards, and more, is still actively involved in creating musicals in his 80s.

Marilyn Mann is the founder of OASIS, an organization which has branches in over 40 cities which encourages seniors to be vibrant members in their communities in all facets of life by teaching or taking classes. About two-thirds of the classes emphasize the arts and humanities. Mann says, "After a person retires there are great opportunities to explore areas of creativity such as painting, drawing, writing or studying poetry, or doing creative writing. Not only can we begin new interests but we can pick up old interests."

Finally, from the American Journal of Psychology, in an article titled, "Aging Artists Creativity," the author says of Martin Lindauer's “Aging, Creativity and Art: A Positive Perspective on late-life Development,” "Readers often skip prefaces of books because they are written in the same formal and mundane style. I suggest that readers not skip the preface this time because it is a rich source of interesting and touching information and questions. The cover of the book is a self-portrait of Rembrandt. In the first paragraph of the preface, Lindauer uses Rembrandt's self-portrait to post a series of questions central to the phenomenon of aging. We may ask, “Why did old Rembrandt spend time and energy on a self-portrait? Apart from scientific reasons, is it related to the author's self­-fulfillment, self-exploration, or some other life goals?” Similarly, we may ask, “Why did Lindauer choose to spend time and energy on finishing his book? Apart from scientific reasons, is it related to the author's self-fulfillment, self-exploration, or some other life goals?" Lindauer was approaching 70 himself!

Don't assume that seniors are ready for the rocking chair. Look around our own city and don't be surprised if a play, concert or art opening was made possible by a vibrant older master of the arts.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than thirty years on numerous arts related boards.