WORDS Greg Decker
Dance or Die…this was said to me by an aging dancer many years ago when I lived and worked in New York City. Fairly blunt. I never forgot it, or forget it. She still dances and thrives, though no longer on stage.
Life, sometimes seeming as fragile as a spider web breaking on the brow. And what can I say about aging, or aging gracefully as an artist, which isn’t already bespoken in a thousand poems in a thousand more graceful ways?
Not much, I suppose. But lately reflecting on this, a few observations from “my inch of space, my minute of time.”
Wonder, that thread of wonder which breaks from the brow, that thread of wonder naturally inborn, of which a friend lately said, “You can tell within a half hour if someone is missing their youth, their curiosity, their kindness.” Their wonder.
For Emily Dickinson, reading can ring the “bells within.” The term figured lately in a painting for me (etched into the wet paint), and I still love the large luminous books which appear aloft, spreading their wings, in many of Rembrandt’s paintings. There is a Middle English word glede (pr. gledduh—in Wm. Langland’s difficult but wonderful Piers the Ploughman) which means “glowing ember.” Is it glede I see in the western sunset, behind the ragged chasing clouds? Or the glowing ember within the child drawing on a wood panel as his father runs insulation through the studs of new building? The glowing ember within the blood guiding (not just receiving) imagery. Hopefully glede is still extant in myself as I marvel on these things.
Maybe that’s it as well? Marvel or die.
Perhaps as artists, musicians, writers, builders of form, we run a race in a widening circle of our making? Or a narrowing circle? The sad and irrevocable fact: One loses energy. To hold up physically one must, yes, eat, clean, exercise, stay healthy. Flaubert famously said, “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
There is no guarantee that aging improves one’s artwork, unless one can meld experience into fresh new adventure; the fortune of aging is the decisiveness of many years of work. As an older painter, I’ve found it really helpful to take breaks, take a walk, get away from the painting, return to the work. Sleep well. Recharge.
And as an older artist, I find it refreshing to talk with younger artists, to see their work (live, not just on a computer screen). Not that I always agree that something is “awesome.” It would be dishonest if I did, and I think that disagreement is healthy. I see very early works I painted decades ago, and I cringe—about the technique, not the spirit. And I admire the spirit and vitality in the work of many young artists.
Doubly refreshing, for me, to spend time with children—watch them running, playing games, spinning songs. After a recent portrait demo, a friend’s children made a portrait of each other (very earnestly, with fine results) on their front porch. Kept me young for a week. And I still love Mahler’s quote: “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”
Music keeps me young. Queuing up a hundred symphonies and a thousand songs from the softest to hardest, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Good music keeps me young, bad music keeps me younger.
So what do we leave behind? To family, to friends, to strangers who stumble upon these works and make of them what they will? Hopefully a legacy of love, of wonder, a particular wild scholarship?
My biggest inspiration as I age is still my own mother, who has painted wonderful watercolors all her life, has a litany of faithful friends, and who, at the age of ninety-one, is still full of life, humor, insight. And wonder.
So. Keep the glede. Embrace the young, and learn from them. Know history. Sleep well. Recharge. And keep the key keys to your heart heart.
See more of Greg Decker’s work at www.greg-decker.space.