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Fragile Strengths: Thoughts on Aging

Through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us. . . . A balance must be established between these two worlds—the one inside us and the one outside us. As the result of a single reciprocal process, both these worlds come to form a single one.  —Henri Cartier-Bresson


Throughout my career, I have used likeness to explore complex realities that lie behind appearances in myself and in others. I started making self-portraits as a young mother in the 1980s. As I look back on my younger self through my art, I can see the maternal and the seductive, the determined and the wavering. I made a self-portrait when I decided not to have more children and another when I divorced. Self-portraits have not only marked milestones in my life, they have connected me to others and given me strength to move forward.

Now that I am older, I’ve continued to investigate the nature of self through a series of intimate, introspective self-portraits. “Fragile Strengths: A Covert Autobiography” is a multimedia self-portrait that looks inward. In keeping with feminist traditions, this visual autobiography invites dialogue to raise consciousness about issues confronting aging. It investigates aspects of the life of a single, mature woman who, although powerful and confident, can feel disenfranchised, invisible, or muffled as she grows older.

In recent years, I have turned to nature to record memories of times past and of the brevity and fragility of life. My new self-portraits portray an inner self that is both vulnerable and powerful. The self-portraits evolve from memories and dreams and offer a flexible paradigm open to fresh approaches of exploration. These multimedia portraits offer a glimpse of different aspects of self and its always changing realities.

Intrigued by Honoré de Balzac’s short story, “The Unknown Masterpiece,” I have created art whose mission “is not to copy nature but to express it!” Balzac’s allegory endows art with a transcendental quality. I am doing the same.

My own personal blend of symbolism and use of unusual materials seeks to imbue the work with an ephemeral, magical quality. The art in this work is intuited by the senses, emotions, and imagination but also appeals to the rational. It creates tensions between vulnerability and aggression, innocence and seduction, beauty and decadence, and, ultimately, life and death. Relying less and less on traditional drawing and painting, I’ve used gossamer silk, dried maple leaves, mirrors, photography, and video to explore universal themes and the passage of time.

Like Balzac’s fictional Master Frenhofer, I have been pursuing my masterpiece for years. Inspired by literature, direct observation, and my own personal story, the imagery tracks an ever-changing nature of an evolving self to impart meaning over time. These images connect observation with feeling and offer an opportunity to reflect on creativity and the idea of self. The work percolates somewhere between consciousness and subconsciousness—a distillation of memory and desire. The views of self reach out to connect with other.

“Fragile Strengths” began with large graphite scrolls on paper and mixed-media pieces on canvas from the 1980s. The earth-toned portraits focus on issues of motherhood, children, and a marriage. As my physical features began to change, the work became more symbolic. Floating, ephemeral silk organza masks—or perhaps veils—create a disguise to hide signs of aging. These heads represent a public face women often resort to for success in today’s culture. They also refer to the myriad ways women elect to camouflage aging through makeup, fashion, and cosmetic surgery.

Anonymous Personae, 2009. #58 Silk organza, cotton fiber and monofilament.

A seven-foot-tall female figure is fabricated out of silk and cotton fibers placed over a core of florescent lights and wrapped in tulle. She emphasizes the kind of inner beauty that radiates from confident, experienced, older women. An image connecting the bare branches of a maple tree with my face, hands, and feet is digitally printed on the silk. The tree of life resembles a vascular or nervous system. The ephemeral torso could be that of a bride or a shroud.

Bound Unbound, 2009. Archival ink jet on silk, cotton fibers, aluminum, florescent lights.

With direct reference to Balzac and his short story, a painted “Unknown Masterpiece,” blurs a portrait’s features, with the exception of her feet. The canvas rests on two pedestals that contain the stilettos portrayed in the painting.

Unknown Masterpiece, 2008. Acrylic on canvas on wood panel, Stilettos (shoes).

The more current pieces in “Fragile Strengths” shift to more metaphorical work. I use light, photography, and a video of a maple tree to document poetically the four seasons to represent the aging process. The final piece shown is a zoetrope showing my silhouette spinning round and round as it animates a dance of life.

“Fragile Strengths” is sometimes specific and sometimes generic. It bridges private and public to present a narrative of a complex woman. The choices of materials, mirrors, aluminum screen, florescent lights, Mylar, paper, and silk, are carefully chosen to emphasize both physical and emotional layers of transcendence. The fragility of these materials belies an empowering strength that has developed over time.

Growing old has changed in the twenty-first century. As one ages there is potential to replenish one’s capacity for positive change and access untapped strengths. It seems open to new kinds of liberation for some and creates new restrictions for others—and everything in between. Open discussion about aging, however, remains taboo.

Thinking about my own aging, I became curious about how growing older has affected the other women—young and old—I knew. It is natural that I would turn to portraiture to open a platform for other women and girls to show the world who we are, what we look like, and how we face life with a perspective different from our male counterparts. As women gain economic and professional power, we need to share our stories to illustrate the wisdom and beauty of aging.

I am once again turning to art, to portraits, to tell the world, “This is who we are. This is what we look like.” This time the portraits are of women and girls. This time photographs and collages record struggles and successes. My blog, “Women Across Generations,” is a platform on Facebook and Instagram to record our stories and our faces. Young and old, a diverse group of women and girls write and gather strength and inspiration from each other’s memories and dreams, fears and hopes, achievements and confidences.