Creativity knows no age limit.


Creativity knows no age limit. It isn’t diminished by age but only by the barriers society puts on it. As we change and grow, our creativity adapts, imagining new possibilities when former interests grow stale or physical challenges insist we change how we operate. But still too often, new thinking, fresh developments are seen as the preserve of younger people.

What if we challenged the idea that to be an ‘emerging’ artist you had to be young? After all, the word ‘emerging’ doesn’t necessarily refer to physical age – in the dictionary you can find these definitions:

  • newly formed, just beginning to exist
  • becoming visible, apparent and prominent
  • recovering from or surviving a difficult situation
  • growing and developing, changing

Do any of these, when set in the context of art and creativity, actually mean ‘young’?

But so many opportunities for ‘newly formed artists, who are just beginning to exist’ are only aimed at young people. For example currently Arts Award, backed by Arts Council England, (which is like the Duke of Edinburgh Award for the arts) is only open to people aged 5 to 25. Participants work their way through different levels and gain credits for their creative and practical learning and achievements. What if those who didn’t get a chance when they were younger because of family circumstances, poverty, geography, lack of confidence, discrimination against women, against people of colour, could get a chance now – aged 29 or 79 and be encouraged to emerge at the beginning of their creative careers?

And what if, opportunities to get started in the arts were easily available for those who wouldn’t think of getting involved in something as formal as an Arts Award. There are plenty of examples where a simple opportunity in a community setting has led to a stellar arts career – here is one:

Mirdidingkingathi Juwarnda Sally Gabori, was born around 1924 on Bentinck Island, one of the indigenous Kaia-dilt people in northern Queensland, Australia.

Gabori came to painting in 2005 aged around 80 years old, through a group at the Mornington Island Arts and Crafts centre. Her talent was spotted and taken up by a Brisbane gallery owner and agent and according to critics she ‘was immediately recognised as an artist of breathtaking instinct, unabashed passion and drive. Her love of paint and the full spectrum of colour offered to her, triggered an outpouring of ideas including depicting her country and her ancestral stories.’  She painted to the end of her life in 2015, making in just ten years an exceptional collection of 2,000 paintings, shown and collected nationally and internationally.

Her story demonstrates that an older emerging artist can offer a fresh eye on the landscape and history of their people and draw on 90 years of life lived and pass on both a legacy of that history in visual images and also provide financial support for her descendants.

So you don’t have to be young to be newly formed… Do you have to be young to be an artist who is “Becoming visible, apparent and prominent”? Or do you just need to catch the eye of whoever it is that has power to judge who is ‘emerging’? And who has the resources to encourage or support that emerging? What if the ‘emerging artist’ is someone who was previously overlooked and unrecognized, noticed now for the first time.  In 2017 the Turner Prize dropped its upper age limit and the winner was the 62 year old artist Lubaina Himid, who despite being honoured in 2010 for ‘services to black women’s art’ was little known to the wider public.

Wouldn’t it be great if this more open attitude became the norm, if we didn’t need a festival for older artists, because their work was shown every week of the year in galleries and theatres and streets across the UK, as part of the mainstream and on the main stage?  It could mean that the range of people whose stories get told, whose voices are heard within our arts venues and companies might (finally) really reflect our population.

How would it be, if we could write a ‘coming of Age’ novel at any age? A story that told the story of what it is to change as we age? Not just the traditional ‘coming of age’ novel or play of the teenager or young adult discovering their identity and often their sexuality, but the coming of age novel of the person becoming 70 or 80 or 90 or more. One that explores our older identities and sexualities, and how these aspects of being human change, as we change, as our bodies age and alter, as how we are seen by society impacts our personal view of ourselves.

Then again, what if our emerging artist is someone recovering from, or surviving a difficult situation? Or what if a person living with a dementia, who no longer communicates verbally, reveals who they are through gesture and expression and sounds? Amongst a group of care home residents, staff and professional musicians and dancers who create together through Spitalfields Music is a lady living with dementia who is non-verbal and who loves to dance. She is the finest dancer in the room, moving everyone else to a state of awe, inspiring others to dance (as described by Julian West one of the professionals involved in the project). So what if seeing that woman dance means that staff focus less on what residents can’t do, what is ‘lost’, and notice instead who they are now and what they have to offer?

What is the effect of the emerging artist on the lives of others? At the intergenerational arts charity Magic Me, Susan Langford, director and founder says “We see that the courage and enthusiasm of older people, seizing opportunities that they didn’t have earlier in life, can bolster the courage and inspire the engagement of younger people. It gives positive role models of ageing, counteracting the received stereotypes that are prevalent in society. It gives all the children involved in these intergenerational projects an opportunity to understand that they can be creative, that as they age that creativity will stay with them, they will still have agency and be valued for what they can give, that the potential impairments of age don’t diminish that.”

Feedback from the children often highlights their surprise at how funny, how clever, how good at imaginative tasks the older people are – it suggests that the children’s minds have been changed about what it is to be old. They also report that creativity made them feel brave. It takes courage to emerge, to come out of your shell and give yourself to the world. Intergenerational creative projects can give that courage to both young and older participants.  Courage and imagination together support the developing of empathy and understanding with each other, so that fixed ideas about age (and class, and background and race) are disrupted.

Susan Langford, founder and director of intergenerational arts charity Magic Me gave a version of the above as a provocation at the Age of Creativity conference last year, Implicitly in the speech she called out the ageism that is rife in society today that equates youth with radical thought, creative inspiration and talent. Thanks go to Age UK Oxfordshire for allowing us to reuse this material to continue the fight against ageism.

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