By Brian Goslow
By the time Paul George turned 50, he had become tired of running the recruiting firm he had owned for 15 years. As a single parent, he had raised four boys, the oldest of who had just gotten married.
“It was a good time for a change, but I didn’t know what I’d do,” he said.
Sitting on a beach in Aruba with a coworker as part of a promotional trip, the answer hit him. “Out of nowhere, I just said, ‘I wish I could paint the green water and rocks that surrounded us.’ ” It turned out his cohort was a watercolor painter, but hadn’t brought his paints with him.
“So we jumped into a cab and tracked down the only place on the island with art supplies. They had a kids’ set with little round paints, so we bought a couple of sets and a block of paper, went back to the beach and I did my first watercolor painting,” George said.
Since then, George, now 67, of Ipswich, has turned that mild curiosity into a full-time second career. He operated a gallery in Gloucester, where he has owned a studio, for 13 years (someone offered him $1,200 for that original painting, but he declined) and shares his talents teaching students throughout New England and Florida.
Each week, he teaches a course, “Watercolor: Alive and Free,” for people of all artistic levels, at the Concord Art Association (CAA), which also offers ongoing classes in painting, fiber arts, computer art and printmaking.
“We have a lot of people who always took art in college or once in a while took a summer class, but didn’t have the chance to fully explore their interest in art until now, after they’ve raised a family or are in retirement,” said Lili Ott, director of CAA, which has a membership of approximately 700 people — the oldest in their 90s — who come from a 30-mile radius.
“The arts tend to be such a solitary pursuit but in an organization like this, there is a chance to connect and come together with other people who have a passion for creativity,” Ott said. “The members of the classes bond almost like an extended family because they work creatively together.”
That’s especially true of participants that live nearby and nurture one another. “They start carpooling, they start going out for lunch after class — it becomes a real social core group for a lot of them,” Ott said. “It’s especially great for those whose families have spread outside the area.”
Dr. Douglas H. Powell, a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School/Harvard University, has studied cognitive aging for the past 25 years, focusing on how the mental abilities and cognitive skills of older people can be enhanced — with an eye toward activities that can help that goal. He promoted active aging in his 1998 book, Nine Myths of Aging: Maximizing the Quality of Later Life (W.H. Freeman and Company). His new book, The Aging Intellect, due out this spring, continues that work, exploring the various behaviors associated with optimal cognitive aging.
One of these is the beneficial effect of art appreciation on the minds of older people. “Art challenges you to do something you’ve never tried before — and it gives you the chance to achieve something,” Powell said.
For all the concerns expressed about helping baby boomers and seniors age gracefully, he said rarely do doctors inquire about their patients’ state of mind.
“When you go to the doctor, you’re normally asked whether you smoke, how much you drink, how much exercise you get, questions about your sex life and do you feel safe at home,” Powell said. “But rarely are you asked, ‘Are you worried about your attention span or retention of memories?’ That’s a big omission, with older people, because worries about their intellect are number two on their list behind avoiding ending in a perpetual vegetative state.”
As people age, they equate a well-functioning mind and mental capacity with their ability to maintain relationships with their friends and family and keeping their independence. That’s where a creative lifestyle comes in.
“Art is one of those activities that might have the same powers as exercising, eating and socializing on an aging intellect,” Powell said. Taking art classes at organizations like the CAA (or senior centers, most of which offer some form of art classes) not only gives people a new focus in life, but also provides the opportunity to refill their social circle as others leave their life. “As you age, social networks are as important as exercising for your mind and body in managing stress,” he said.
Mark Hopkins, 79, spent the majority of his career in the advertising profession. In 2004, he traveled to South Africa to monitor the country’s wildlife with Earthwatch, a non-profit organization that brings people interested in the science of life to locations worldwide.
“We spent two weeks taking a census of the animals,” Hopkins said. “While there I took a lot of pictures. I had never done nature photography before.” He decided to put together a visual presentation of the trip to share with others and realized he had a knack for nature photography.
He’s subsequently turned it into a new career — falling back on knowledge gained during a two-year affair with a black and white camera in the early 1960s and having taught himself to use Photoshop computer software to process his digital images. His images have found an audience and local galleries have hosted five solo shows of his works in the past half-decade.
Hopkins estimated he spends approximately a day and a half each week taking photographs but said, “If you start measuring it, you take the fun out of it. You should just do what you want to do.”
His most recent shoots have taken place on the waters of Maine, fishing in the Adirondack Mountains, a cruise to Martha’s Vineyard and just walking around in Concord and his hometown of Lincoln.
He sounds half his age.
“The less you think about your aches and pains and keep challenging yourself, the better the life you have,” Hopkins said.
Sarah Ribeiro, 66, of Jefferson, started making pottery 30 years ago as a creative outlet while raising her children. Now “totally retired,” — after a post-child raising career that included working in WPI’s entrepreneurial program, the International Artist Series and Music Worcester before her final job as an assistant to the dean of students at Northfield-Mount Hermon — she can be found every Wednesday at the Worcester Center for Crafts.
Ribeiro said the “all-day affair” gives her valuable structure, partially due to having paid for the session and the unspoken pact between the participants.
“The people there are glad to see you,” Ribeiro said. “You want to see what they’re doing and they want to see what you’re doing. I took stuff out of my kiln last weekend and left it for the class to see. They get excited for you if it comes out really good.”
That social aspect is balanced by self-exploration and feelings of accomplishment. “Every magazine I read, I look for pottery and flower arrangements,” Ribeiro said. “It keeps you on an edge looking for something new. It’s better if things are changing. Those changes put jazz in your life.”
Most of Ribeiro’s pottery has been utilitarian in nature, items that can be used around the house. She recently took up making hand-built sculptures with an eye to using them in floral arrangements, having participated in past Worcester Art Museum “Flora in Winter” exhibitions. This January, her work will sit alongside one of the world’s most beloved paintings, Édouard Manet’s “The Dead Toreador.”
The Worcester Center for Crafts hosts a variety of classes in clay/pottery, glassmaking, wood, jewelry, photography, the fiber arts and the business of crafts, to name a few. It offers extended classes as well as two-day introductory courses where newcomers can try them out.
Program director Tom O’Malley, who is also a ceramics instructor, said a number of baby boomers who take courses are people who aren’t quite ready to retire but are interested in exploring future activities, and have long harbored artistic interests, with an eye toward their retirement days.
“The thing I notice the most, teaching ceramics, is the awakening in them,” O’Malley said. “Many times I’ve had students introduce themselves at the start of classes and they’ll say, ‘In college, I minored in art’ or ‘I worked in the pottery studio at college for four years’ and they want to come back to it.”
The beauty of art, O’Malley said, is it doesn’t matter when you decide to start your artistic journey. “The materials and processes don’t know your age. Whether you’re young or old, they never change. They’re consistent. Both the 20-year-old and 70-year-old have to learn how to put the clay on the wheel.”