Arts & Culture · Fine Art

The Fine Art of Aging

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In one of the galleries, Hilda looked around the room anxiously. “There’s supposed to be a painting of a canal in that corner,” she said. The new Barnes was commissioned to replicate the galleries exactly as they had been organized at their former location; however, Hilda sensed something was wrong. Two galleries later, she sighed, “There it is!” The missing painting was Monet’s Houseboat.

“Look at how he painted the reflection in the water,” she said, “As if the boat is actually traveling away from the you.” I had seen the famous painting innumerable times but now, through Hilda’s eyes, I saw the boat move.

Barnes-Foundation-Monet(1)Monet’s Houseboat, at the Barnes Foundation. (Photo: VisitPhilly)

We took a break for lunch and never got to the second floor galleries. Instead, we talked about Hilda’s life as an artist over gazpacho and avocado sandwiches at a nearby eatery.

I learned that my cousin had started painting in 1954, studying at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “My instructor didn’t put up with any nonsense,” said Hilda. “If you were there for therapy, he’d kick you right out.”

Hilda continued to study at the Museum for over a decade. Like many members of the Philadelphia art establishment, her instructor did not subscribe to Barnes’s formulaic “philosophy” based on the writings of John Dewey. He discouraged Hilda from attending Barnes’s two-year program. Hilda, ever the independent, free-thinking rebel, applied anyway in the 1960s.

She recalled her nervousness at being interviewed at the home of the imperious Violette De Mazia, director of the Barnes Educational Program. “Her house was filled with masterpieces,” said Hilda, “She was rumored to be one of Barnes’s mistresses.” (When De Mazia’s art collection was auctioned at Christie’s in 1989, it brought in over $8 million.)

“They had very strict rules. You could not miss a session and had to do all of the assignments and readings,” said Hilda. “It was amazing.” She explained that the course gave her intimate access to masterpieces that, at the time, were not available to the public.

I hadn’t known that my cousin had taught children’s art classes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and several art centers. Or that she was among the first to experiment with etching on steel and that her etchings are part of the collection of the University of Pennsylvania’s Shea Eye Institute.  I also learned that Hilda has, like most people her age, serious health challenges, but, unlike her peers, she doesn’t dwell on the subject.

She prefers talking about art. The rewards of the creative life. The joy she takes in her children, grandchildren. and great-grandchildren. In doing so, my cousin gave me a glimpse into a future I hadn’t imagined. The knowledge that growing older doesn’t have to be about shutting down and loss. Aging can be a fine art if, like Hilda, you approach each day as a blank canvas with infinite possibilities.

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  • Marion H Sadler July 22, 2016 at 12:14 am

    Great stories must be told. A clean house lasts only a week! Art such as paintings, carvings, poetry, music, plays and opera last forever and record current times they share their innermost love of live to a world too busy being busy at their own worries.
    I do not think there is sanity, love or emotion without the arts.

  • Rocky July 21, 2016 at 8:58 pm

    This was just delightful! What a lovely tour through the museum. I feel like I was with you!

  • Mary Dougherty July 21, 2016 at 4:22 pm

    Lovely. I saw the old Barnes; now I need to go to the new location/arrangement.

  • Barbara July 21, 2016 at 12:29 pm

    I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this article, Stacia! I would love to have tea with your cousin! And, you of course. This piece brightened my day.
    Thank you!

  • Suzanne Fluhr July 21, 2016 at 12:18 pm

    I live within walking distance of the “new” Barnes Museum and am so embarrassed and annoyed with myself for never having yet visited. Your cousin reminds me of my father’s artist friends with whom he attended the Tyler School of Art, graduating in 1950. He told me that when he was a Tyler student, they werent allowed to go to the Barnes Foundation because Mr. Barnes and the Dean of Tyler were feuding. I guess even artists can be silly.

  • Diane Bones July 21, 2016 at 12:02 pm

    Wonderful piece, this woman is an aging role model for us all!

  • Roz Warren July 21, 2016 at 11:33 am

    An exceptional essay! And particularly enjoyable for this Philadelphia reader.

  • Nora Brossard July 21, 2016 at 8:55 am

    Stacia, we met once or twice years ago, when you were doing travel writing. I’m a travel/wine PR person. I love, love, love this piece. It reminds me a bit of my beloved grandmother,a terrific artist who studied with Milton Avery at the Art Students League here in Manhattan. Unlike your cousin, her final ill health kept her from doing art, and that may have contributed to her loss of spirit and life at the age of 89. I’ve visited the Barnes in its original site, was against the move to PHiladelphia, but you make me want to go see it.

  • to you toPhyllis Dupret July 20, 2016 at 7:43 am

    The Art of Aging is simply wonderful…I’ve already shared it on my facebook page and my google site…THANK YOU … I lift my coffee mug to THANK YOU on this terrific Wednesday morning in mid-July…I am Hoping you have a Wonderful Wednesday……….