The many masks of modern art
The dramatic emergence of talent in mid to late life has never ceased to amaze me. It can pop up anywhere. I know an excellent photographer who decided a few months ago to turn his lifelong habit of doodling to good advantage by transforming some of his doodles into a painting. The result was a stunning little picture that is by far the best ''first painting'' I have ever seen.Skip to next paragraph
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It took a while to convince him of how good it was, but he did finally agree that it might not be so bad after all, and is now busily engaged in producing a group of paintings that may very well launch him on a second career.
I also know an extraordinary woman, the widow of a world-famous sculptor, who started using a camera seriously for the first time three years ago -- and is now an excellent photographer whose works are in demand by museums and major galleries.
Many of us have had this experience -- at least to some degree. It can consist of nothing more dramatic than the discovery of skills we never knew we had -- or it can be as dramatic as the case of Grandma Moses, who discovered at a very advanced age that she could paint. At any rate, such experiences happen all the time, in all places, and at all ages. The only problem lies in knowing how to trust such suddenly discovered talent -- and in knowing how to use it wisely.
At such moments, good, professional guidance and support can be crucial, or the self-confidence needed to enter a new field may never develop. It is, after all, hard to gauge the quality or promise of what has so startlingly sprung into view -- especially if it happens in a field somewhat apart from our own.
We may be ecstatic about what has happened, and dearly love what has resulted from it, but know at the same time that what excites us so tremendously may be of little or no interest or value to anyone else.
The problem lies in finding someone whose opinion we can trust on both a professional and personal level. Someone, in other words, who can tell us whether our ''talent'' is real or an illusion, and who can do so with an insight into the kind of person we are, and the kind of long-range goals we have in mind.
Such individuals, unfortunately, are not so easy to find. Professional opinion is easy enough to come by, but professional opinion balanced by a sympathetic understanding of the values, family responsibilities, and career preferences of the person whose talent it is -- that's another matter entirely. I'm not by any means suggesting that sympathy in this case necessarily means advising the ''new'' artist to give up everything and henceforth devote his life exclusively to art. No indeed! That could be the worst possible sort of advice to give, regardless of how much talent is involved.
No, I mean the kind of sympathetic understanding and advice that will help the person, asking for it, to perceive his talent within the broadest possible context, and help him get a glimpse of its possible economic, personal, social, professional, even its spiritual and creative implications. An explosion of ''talent'' in mid-life, after all, can be a very confusing thing, and is not something to be accepted blindly -- at least not by most of us.
I am also intrigued by the change in direction talent will sometimes take at a younger age, most particularly during the formative years of professional training. I remember very clearly the moment an art school friend of mine made the final decision to be a sculptor rather than a painter. He was working on a portrait of me in oils, and it was, as far as I could tell, going well. Halfway through, however, he lifted the canvas off the easel and said quite simply that he was finished forever with painting. And he was -- or at least he still is, for he transferred his attentions to clay and wood, and is now a successful sculptor.
But most of all, I'm intrigued by a change of direction which moves a young artist from one kind of creative perception and expression to another, from, say , work that is tightly controlled, geometric, and coolly detached to work that is wildly impulsive, free-form, and intensely empathetic. A move, in other words , that indicates a basic alteration in creative focus, even possibly a basic change in philosophy.