The hope and fear of aging

September 13, 1991|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Evening Sun Staff

ELNORA SIMMS' face is pretty, but her words are not:

Arthritis doesn't kill anybody. It just cripples them. When the doctor told me that I had arthritis, I said I wish you'd tell me that I had cancer. At least then I'd die.

Elnora Simms' eyes are bright, but her hopes dim:

Anymore, I try to concentrate on the good times. Oh, I have a lot of memories. I often relive them for hours.

Elnora Simms' bright eyes, gnarled hands, pretty face and harsh words merge into a picture of an aging woman whose life is lonely and compromised by pain, yet brightened by memories and new friends.

Elnora Simms is one woman. Elnora Simms is many women.

And the photos are her legacy, says the photographer who was captivated by her in her last years.

"She is not unlike a lot of old people," says Mary Lou Uttermohlen, 28, of Columbus, Ohio, who photographed Simms over several years.

Four of Uttermohlen's photos are in "Aging: The Process, The Perception," a traveling exhibit opening today at Towson State University's Holtzman Gallery. This is the first stop on a two-year tour for the exhibit, which originated at Jamestown (N.Y.) Community College.

"In four quick frames, you get a taste of what it feels like to walk in this woman's shoes," says Uttermohlen, who combined Simms' words with the photos. "They bring to your attention what it feels like to grow old in this country."

With Uttermohlen are more than 30 other artists who present views of aging and the aged in a variety of media, including video and books.

Some offer personal images focused on a friend, relative or even themselves; others take a more detached look, not only at physical aging, but at time and change.

"This show approaches aging from a variety of directions -- it intentionally claims no single philosophical or aesthetic point of view. Some work is reassuring and positive; some is dark and frightening," writes the exhibit's creator, Dan Talley, in the catalog for the original show.

"I wanted to present enough approaches to show a well-rounded attitude of what it is to grow older," he said in a telephone interview. Talley, director of the college's Forum Gallery, said he looked at 200 works before selecting more than 70. The traveling show, arranged by the Gallery Association of New York State, has about 50 works.

Talley included the videos because it is a medium "that has a lot of possibilities to communicate with people," he said. Some are "very experimental;" others are dramas and documentaries.

The exhibit sprung from Talley's desire to present "exhibits that would be relevant to Jamestown," he said. When his research showed that 17 percent of Jamestown's population was over 65, he settled on the aging theme.

Talley said the exhibit received a "very strong . . . and, generally, very positive response. Even those who were disturbed agreed that it was something we had to deal with," he said. "Aging is not just for the old."

The artists in the show range in age from 20s to 80s. One of the oldest artists, Elizabeth Layton of Topeka, Kan., didn't begin drawing until she was 68 after a serious illness. Her touching pencil-and-crayon drawing, "Self Portrait: Stroke," deals with this experience, addressing "the fears of transition between health and illness," writes Talley.

Another artist, Mary Mallott, did her piece specifically for this show, Talley said. The combined photograph and oil painting, inspired by her 60th birthday, shows Mallott, nude, atop a mountain peak that leans into a great blue yonder.

Although she is depicted facing nothing, "it's not cold and I'm not afraid, but it seems very strange," Mallott writes in the catalog notes. "Suddenly I was 60 and I had trouble believing it."

Her work -- one of the most hopeful of the exhibit -- "is the best I can come to understanding what's ahead."

Christopher Bartlett, director of Towson State's gallery, said he chose this exhibit because of the many media from which students could learn and in hopes of attracting people from outside the university. Brochures about the exhibit have been sent to senior citizen groups and centers, Bartlett said.

But aging is of universal interest, he added. "Even young people are interested in getting old."

It was, in fact, young people who reacted most strongly to the exhibit in New York. "Those who were terrified were the young," Talley said.

For older folks, it showed "a reality they were accustomed to."

"Aging: The Process, The Perception" continues at The Holtzman Gallery in the Fine Arts Center at Towson State University through Oct. 6. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; the exhibit is free. For more information, phone the art department, 830-2808.

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