The Miracle of Creativity in the Woman Artist

Women artists gifted with the tool of creativity frequently have extended lives, remain in good health to the end, and experience a blessed sense of fulfillment. There is nothing like being a creative artist to enable us to experience life’s blessings all of our days. Expressing creativity is the closest humanity can come to the Fountain of Youth.

The great Georgia O’Keeffe was born on November 15, 1887, and has been a major figure in American art since the 1920s. She worked successfully and prolifically for over 50 years, but by the early 1970s, her eyesight was eroded by macular degeneration.

Nevertheless, she did not abandon art, but turned instead to working with clay and to writing her autobiography, as well as making a video, Georgia O’Keeffe. She worked unassisted in watercolor and charcoal until 1978 and in graphite until 1984 when she reached the advanced age of 96. She died at St. Vincent’s Hospital, Santa Fe on March 6, 1986, at the age of 98.

Jacqueline Lamba was a French artist who was badly discriminated against by the male-dominated artistic world of the 20th century. Nevertheless, she submerged herself in her painting and produced over 400 paintings in half a century. Before she died at age 83, she wrote to a friend: “If you hear that I am no longer painting, it is because I have died.” And indeed, miraculously, she went on painting to the end of her life, despite suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.

You don’t have to be a great artist to experience the benefits of creativity. The men and women enrolled in classes at the Alzheimer’s Center of the East Bay paint personally meaningful symbols from lives that are fading from their memories. “Art is a great way for them to express themselves emotionally and physically,” said program director Lauren Eppinger. “It also highlights their strengths and not their cognitive losses.” “The participants are still creating and doing beautiful work, and their lives come through, past and present,” said Micheal Pope, deputy director of the center. And beauty is not only in the beholder’s eye, it is everywhere, also on the fork of the beholder! It seems that the creative arts can help provide a path to communicate that is not verbal.

Linda Hargrove, The Original Blue Jean Country Queen, was diagnosed with leukemia in 1986. Her career took a drastic turn when she learned that she had 6 to 8 years to live. Three years later, however, in 1989, she was told that without intervention, her death would be imminent. Linda underwent an experimental transplantation of bone marrow at Tampa’s H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Treatment Center in 1990 and survived as lust one out of 30 other patients in the study. Lida is still Moffitt’s longest transplantation surviving patient.

I have always felt that creativity and the source of life are of a piece like California’s Central Coast and that when we are able to understand one we will also understand the other. The other day, my granddaughters and I were working on a few pieces of sculpture. When we finished, there stood a little man and his dog, looking as alive as we did. It was uncanny. Out of nothing, an inert lump of clay, there now was something. It reminded me of the feeling I had on first seeing my son Zane as a newborn infant. There was nothing there, and then all of a sudden, there was a person!

Out of nothing, the gases in the universe, came the planets and the stars. Out of nothing comes something. That is the similarity between life and creativity. In one’s creative self reposes the essence of being, a mini-example of the origin of life. No wonder creative people tend to live a long time. Frances Dunham Catlett, an elegant black painter, said it better. “I’m facing an empty canvas and when I begin, the brush starts moving, and I’m watching the miracle to happen.” She was still painting at her 100th birthday

Jacqueline Baroch is an art therapist at the Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. Her patient, Mae, picks up a pen and listlessly scrawls a line on the paper in front of her. As Baroch gently prods with questions about Mae’s childhood home, about sisters and brothers, about farm animals and flowers, Mae’s posture starts to change. Her shoulders come back and her head lifts. Her eyes brighten and she starts to draw with more focus.

The clouds of dementia begin to part, and Mae starts to reminisce about her youth. At that tie, she paid more attention to the phenomenon of “Outsider Art” and its often primitive way of drawing. Her awakening through the act of drawing, says Baroch, allows Mae to reconnect, for a time, with an earlier self and to retrieve memories that she might not be able to find without a pen in her hand.

Such is the power of art, experts say. At a minimum, art therapy sessions can help a patient recall forgotten memories and express tangled emotions when verbal abilities are eroding. Parkinson’s patients who can’t hold a trembling hand still enough to pen out a sentence are able to paint fluid brush strokes across a canvas. Stroke patients who can’t utter a word can suddenly speak their names. No one knows exactly how art taps into physical and intellectual memories muddled by neurodegenerative diseases. But scientists suspect that the process allows people to find alternate routes to misplaced memories. See also this post about Nek Chand’s Fantastic Sculpture Garden.

Information in the brain appears to be organized much like the entries in a library’s card catalog. A book will have one card as its main entry, but also several others organized by category linking back to the book. Similarly, a memory of an event can be reached directly or through its links with other information stored in the brain. Start drawing a picture of your childhood home, for example, and suddenly you might have access to memories of events that occurred there.

Thus women artists have the marvelous ability to find alternate access to their emotions and memories through their art. Whatever the state of our health, the disasters no one can completely escape, and/or whatever our mood may be, we women artists should go on creating as long as we live. This will bring us as close to a long, healthy life as is possible for a human being to attain.