Art For The Ages

A New Exhibit At The American Visionary Art Museum Celebrates Works By The Very Old And The Very Young

October 04, 2003|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

The work of many artists grows deeper and more reflective with age, and the arc of an artist's career from youthful exuberance to mellow wisdom often is one of the characteristic expressions of the creative life.

But some people don't fully tap their creativity until they reach a relatively advanced age - their 60s, 70s and even 80s. For such individuals, the belated recognition of their potential for serious artistic expression may come as both shock and cause for celebration.

Such is the case with the artists presented in Golden Blessings of Old Age/Out of the Mouths of Babes, the season-long exhibition of works by outsider and self-taught artists that opens today at the American Visionary Art Museum.

The show, organized by guest curators Michael Bonesteel and Lee Kogan, brings together some 250 works by 50 artists who not only found their creative calling late in life, but produced powerful visual works. A second, smaller portion of the show features art by children who survived war or other traumas. By juxtaposing their creations, the show demonstrates that significant aesthetic achievement is not necessarily limited by age.

The artists represented here range from relatively little-known figures like Harry Lieberman, a retired candy manufacturer who took up painting in his 70s, to Grandma Moses, the farm widow whose paintings begun during her 80s and 90s made her one of America's most famous artists.

Lieberman, for example, went into the candy business after he emigrated to the United States from Poland in 1906 at the age of 26. By the early 1960s he was a successfully retired businessman enjoying a comfortable life in Great Neck, N.Y., whiling away the hours playing board games.

One day, his favorite chess partner failed to arrive on time, and Lieberman began dabbling with a paint set instead. The wholly fortuitous circumstance launched him on a 25-year, second career as an artist painting scenes from his early youth and religion.

Similarly, Elizabeth Layton began drawing at the age of 68, after becoming depressed and undergoing electroshock therapy.

During her recovery, she took a lesson in contour drawing, a method in which the artist sketches without looking at the paper. The experience sparked a burst of creativity: Over time, Layton produced more than 1,000 self-portraits.

Today, it is widely accepted that the creative activities of visual art- and music-making play a vital role in the intellectual development of very young children by stimulating the formation of neural pathways connecting the right and left lobes of the brain.

(Several years ago, former Gov. Zell Miller of Georgia, now a U.S. senator, put those lessons of modern science to practical use by funding a neo-natal program which provided classical music CDs to every newborn infant in the state.)

What remains less widely recognized, however, is that the number of neural pathways in the brain only reaches its maximum in middle age - during one's 40s and 50s, according to Gene D. Cohen, a George Washington University professor of psychiatry who was an advisor for the show. The accumulation of this critical mass of connective tissues in later life provides a physiological basis for an entirely new order of possibilities for artistic expression, he said.

These physiological changes in the brain, which may coincide with the increased emotional maturity and financial stability older people generally enjoy, can lead to an explosion of late-life creativity that results in artistic achievement of the highest caliber - even among people, like the self-taught practitioners in this exhibition, who never before thought of themselves as artists.

Many of the artists in the show return to scenes and emotions experienced in childhood, even though these images often evoke painful memories of tragedy and loss.

Lieberman, for example, painted many scenes of the close-knit Jewish shtetl community in his native Poland, despite the fact that he and his family were subject to violent persecution and pogroms there. Yet his scenes of rural village life seem surprisingly sweet, tinged with nostalgia and longing for a vanished world.

Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, whose deceptively innocent-looking quilted fabric pictures occupy an entire gallery on the museum's third floor, was a Holocaust survivor who emigrated to America after World War II and only began creating artworks recalling the experiences of her youth in late middle age.

Krinitz' pictures share the gay, colorful patterns and naive compositions of Grandma Moses' bucolic scenes of New England farm life, but their subject is far grimmer - the deportation of her family, friends and neighbors from the tiny Polish village of Mniszek to the Nazi death camps.

Krinitz and her younger sister managed to escape by hiding in the woods and posing as gentile girls who had been separated from their parents. They were the only members of their family to survive the war. She immigrated to America and lived in New York and New Jersey before moving to Maryland, where she operated a dress shop in Frederick until her death in 2001.

Krinitz recounted her harrowing tale of life on the run in a series of picture panels accompanied by hand-sewn captions whose simplicity and expressiveness only serve to magnify the horror of the events they describe.

Golden Blessings is a deeply moving show that is also inspiring in its affirmation of humanity's lifelong creative potential and spiritual striving.

Exhibit

What: Golden Blessings of Old Age/Out of the Mouths of Babes

Where: American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway

When: Through September

Hours: Tuesday through Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Admission: $9 adults, $6 students and seniors

Call: 410-244-1900

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