Date: July 1st, 2011
Who hasn’t looked in the mirror only to find someone staring back with too many wrinkles and gray hairs? Someone who we don’t recognize because that person is way too old? When Alice and Richard Matzkin found themselves and their loved ones confronting bodies being etched by time and pulled down by gravity, they became overwhelmed by fear.
“Fear of the future was making me neglect the most precious moment of my life: now,” says Alice. “I wasn’t looking for the positive—I was freaked out. I was looking for the negative and it scared me so much. I wanted to look my fear in the face,” says Richard. So they confronted their fears using “paint and canvas and clay, rather than a psychiatrist’s couch.”
Having emerged from this process with a new outlook on aging and life, Alice and Richard are now sharing their work in the hopes that others will take away a little of what they have learned.
Paintings of Inspiration and Acceptance
Turning to older women who were continuing to pursue their passions, Alice looked not only for subjects for her paintings but for sources of inspiration. She felt that if she could find beauty in their faces, she would find it in her own. If she could absorb some of their wisdom and spirit, she could find her own. She painted more than 20 women who at ages 70 to 105 were all continuing to find happiness in their lives.
In this series — Women of Age, Alice chose not to focus on what the women had achieved, but on what they were accomplishing in the present. Along the way, she got to know a president of AARP, a yoga master, a tea master, a skateboard master, a flautist, a UN ambassador, an Amnesty International leader, a dancer, a choir director, a political activist, and a poet. What she found was that painting them was immensely satisfying and that their lines and wrinkles added to the character of their faces—they “wrote the story of the person’s years.” And no matter how many signs of age, these women were satisfied with their lives and their bodies.
But Alice wasn’t. She hadn’t learned to accept her body and accept that it was aging, so she turned to women who were truly comfortable in their skin. For her Naked Truth series, Alice painted 12 nudes of women ages 58 to 87 who she found inhabited their bodies with acceptance and courage. And after months of painting naked bodies that initially made her want to turn away, she learned to look at them through eyes of love and acceptance.
Sculptures of Fear and Love
Shaken by the physical side of aging and the reality of death, Richard confronted his fears through sculptures in his series Naked Old Men. In these pieces he captured the loss and the fear of Alzheimer’s disease, the evolution from young to old, and the feeling of powerlessness with aging. These were his fears that he “formed in clay.”
The sculptures proved cathartic and helped Richard to accept his aging and share what he had learned. “The graphic images of aging, sickness, and death are meant to give a visceral message about impermanence—nothing lasts forever, so we must appreciate, appreciate, appreciate,” shares Richard.
More recently, Richard has been working on a series of sculptures portraying older couples in intimate and tender moments. While some in the Lovers series have a shocking quality at first glance, when you look at them more carefully you realize they show what we are all looking for—a love and a bond that endures time, age, and whatever else life throws our way.
Lessons from Their Contemplation
Alice and Richard describe their art as a “catalyst” that focused them on this timeless question of aging. Instead of avoiding aging and fighting it with anti-aging regimes and denial, their art allowed them to contemplate a conscious aging. While they used different tools to contemplate, they both learned the same lessons.
Acceptance. Through this exploration Richard and Alice found true acceptance. “My body is my vehicle of transportation, it’s the abode to my senses, and it’s the home of my mind and spirit, and I’ll never feel bad about it again,” shares Alice. “I’m just happy to have a body, happy to be alive.”
Passion. The one thing that all the women in Alice’s first series had in common was that they were pursuing their passion. “Their life was their work of art” and they found happiness in that passion whether it was skateboarding or promoting peace.
Beauty. Each age has its own beauty and we have to look for what it is in the present, not what it was. “If you look at an old face, if you look at it with judgment, you see an old person. But if you look at it without judgment, you see the person, the history, the character—and that has its own beauty,” shares Richard.
Sharing Their Work
Alice and Richard have chosen to share their art and what they have learned with the world. Two of Alice’s paintings—one of Beatrice Wood, famous potter and sculptor, and the other of Betty Friedan, feminist—were both purchased by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery and now hang in its permanent collection. Alice’s painting of Chelsea Clinton hung in the White House and she appeared on Oprah to talk about her work.
They also wrote a book together— The Art of Aging: Celebrating the Authentic Aging Self, winner of the Nautilus Book Award and the Independent Publisher Book Award. The book features the projects that allowed this artistic couple to explore aging and the changes that come with it, including Declining Years—sequential paintings of an aging aunt, ages 89-97, and Being with Our Parents in Their Old Age and Death. The book shares pictures of their work, their thoughts, and wisdom about aging from people that inspire them.
While Alice interviewed and photographed the Women of Age, Richard videotaped. These interviews will soon be available in an inspirational DVD entitled Women of Age: Portraits of Wisdom, Beauty, and Strength. The Naked Truth paintings will soon be in a calendar. The artists also continue to share their thoughts and experiences from their work through interviews and articles such as this one. To watch some of their videos, click here.
All of us will die. If we’re lucky, we’ll get old and wrinkled. Finding a way to love every moment is a rare gift that Alice & Richard are happy to share.