5 Female Artists Whose Passion in Old Age Will Inspire You As Much As Their Work

By the team at Owly, Aug 13th 2018

Old age doesn’t have to mean giving up your passions. It’s common for people to feel useless in their later years; they’re retired and they feel as though they have nothing left to contribute to society. Aimless days can be spent wallowing in that feeling of powerlessness. As a bystander watching them suffer, it can be hard to know what to do. But as a caretaker, you have the chance to show your loved one that they are valued and that they can and do make a difference, even if only in a few people’s lives. It might require slow, small steps, but there are still ways for your loved one to follow their dreams in old age.

Inspiration predates action. In order to change your loved one’s perspective, you have to shake them up and light a fire in their heart. Something that always inspires me to create and let my inner self thrive is discovering and processing beautiful artwork. This can be a wonderful activity to share with your loved one on the couch on a quiet day. Paging through coffee table books with beautiful images can create a peaceful but invigorating atmosphere. I’m always in awe of the immense talent that exists in our world. Art also offers an inlet to discussion. If having conversations with your loved one is difficult, try to show them a painting and ask about their reactions. Inherently, art is meant to make you feel something. Discussing your loved one’s responses can give you a peek into their state of mind.

Below you’ll find five artists whose work I highly suggest. They are inspirational in so many ways, but particularly in their continuing dedication and creation in old age. In a men-dominated field, these women asserted their vision and really made their mark on the world. If possible, I’d suggest borrowing from the library or purchasing a coffee table book featuring one of these artists. Coffee table books show the paintings in full color, and the nuances are far easier to appreciate. If that’s too difficult, you and your loved one can always sit side-by-side at the computer and explore these artists’ work online. And of course, in a perfect world, you and your loved one could see some of their work in person at your local art museum. Whichever way you go, I’m sure that by the time you read about these five incredible artists, you’ll be eager to find out more and to share the stories of their phenomenal lives with your loved one.

Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin’s art is often described as minimalist, though she aligns herself more with abstract expressionism. A lifelong artist, in 1992, Martin moved into a retirement community at the foot of Taos Mountain, where she continued to paint every morning from 8:30 to 11:30. In 1995, she downscaled from her typical sixty-inch square canvases to meet her physical needs. It was only just before her death, when she realized that she could no longer have an independent studio practice, that she decided to quit painting. Martin led a life that was truly her own, far from the New York art world, often living in isolation where she couldn’t be found. In older age, her paintings and writing continually searched for a sense of peace. The paintings she’s left behind are nonrepresentational but at the same time deeply profound wells of stillness and formlessness.

Despite her lifelong experiences with schizophrenia and psychotic episodes, she brought a serenity to her work that she said had nothing to do with her illness. Her iconic six by six foot canvases are often filled with series of nuanced lines and grids, some of which blend into each other and some of which catch your eye, seeming to suggest something just out of reach. Inspired by Zen Buddhism, Taoism, and American Transcendentalist ideas, Martin painted “a world without objects, without interruption...or obstacle. It is to accept the necessity of [...] going into a field of vision as you would cross an empty beach to look at the ocean.” This vision resonates for seniors whose lives have slowed down and whose future may seem vast and empty. As the Guardian’s article on Agnes Martin put it, “Learning to withstand emptiness was her own specialty.” That’s something we should all attempt. Martin’s final painting was a tiny drawing of a plant, barely more than three inches high; a material representation that showed she never stopped changing and trying even in her final days. For more information about her fascinating life, check out the book by her friend and dealer Arne Glimcher: Agnes Martin: Paintings, Writings, Remembrances.

Georgia O’Keeffe

Probably most of you are familiar with O’Keeffe’s vibrant closeups of flowers that have become a modern icon. She experienced huge success during her lifetime through her depictions of flowers, skyscrapers, animal skulls, and southeastern landscapes. She moved to New Mexico in 1949, and for several decades she traveled the world to soak in inspiration from the fantastic sights that surrounded her. After her husband died, O’Keeffe continued to manage and control all aspects of her career, managing to sell work while still keeping nearly half her paintings for herself, many of which were her finest works.

In her older years, macular degeneration caused O’Keeffe to begin losing her eyesight. But despite her handicap, she refused to give up her work. She enlisted assistants to help her create her art and with the help of her friend, sculptor Juan Hamilton, she wrote the bestseller Georgia O'Keeffe. Hamilton taught her how to work with clay, and with his help, she produced sculptures and watercolor paintings while continuing to produce drawings in charcoal, pastel, and pencil on her own. At 90 years old, she said, “I can see what I was to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there.” O’Keeffe’s paintings are some of the loveliest that exist, but they’re further elevated once you understand the unquenchable vivacity of her spirit.  Old age didn’t frighten her; it was merely funneled into her creations. Her fierce independence is a model for people in their later years. Even as her body was failing her, she fought to keep creating even as she wasn’t too proud to accept help from others. This balance, and her continuing capacity to create works that were entirely her own, are an inspiration for anyone in their later years.

Beatrice Wood

Wood was a contemporary artist, craftsperson, and writer whose work incorporated the spirit of the times from Dada sensibilities to folk art traditions. Her career as a noteworthy artist began in the most unlikely way: after making an abstraction to tease Marcel Duchamp that anyone could create modern art, Duchamp was so impressed that he arranged to have it published in a magazine and invited her to work in his studio. There, she was thrust into the heart of the Dada movement and developed a spontaneous and active style of sketching and painting that she practiced and explored throughout her life. In midlife, she began to learn pottery, although she admitted “she was not a born craftsman.” She began selling her work several years later to support herself, and soon found a number of mentors who taught her the skills of the trade. Her loose, untraditional pottery forms were wholly new, especially her vibrant luster glazes and her primitive human depictions. Wood was in her late eighties when her first book was published and she never stopped finding new methods and means of creation.

Wood lived a life full of the exploration of humor, romance, positivity, and dedication. She continued to produce work in her studio until 104 years old, and upon her death, her home was gifted to the Happy Valley Foundation so that they could share her art with the world. Her legacy continues as visitors come to marvel her energetic and zealous work.Wood influenced people across all fields, even serving as the inspiration for the character “Rose” in the film Titanic. She was a forceful and optimistic women whose wisdom can be appreciated by both you and your loved one. In her pottery lectures she told her students a message that should be taken to heart: “Do be true to yourself, whether it’s bad doesn’t matter. [...] But once you’re on your own, do that which comes from within.” Wood wrote to her friend at 103 years old and told her, “Choosing to live in the timeless, I am now at the easiest and happiest time of my life.” What an incredible way to live, and what an admirable state to strive for. If you’re interested in reading about her life in her own words, check out a copy of I Shock Myself: The Autobiography of Beatrice Wood.

Grandma Moses

Grandma Moses spent most of her life in the country, running a farm with her husband and raising five children. Miraculously, it wasn’t until she was in her seventies that she decided to devote herself to painting when arthritis forced her to give up embroidery. Entirely self-taught, as soon as Moses established a steady practice she became a prolific creator, letting scenes from her life spool onto masonite boards in a simplistic form of realism that burst with color . Then, in 1938, an art collector noticed her work hanging in the window of the local drug store in the little town of Hoosick Falls. He bought every painting and soon launched her career in New York. The following year, she had her first one-woman show and her paintings were displayed in prominent museums and shops across the city. Her depictions of nostalgic scenes from her childhood offer a powerful message about older age and the accumulation of memories: “I’ll get an inspiration and start painting; then I’ll forget everything, everything except how things used to be and how to paint it so people will know how we used to live.”

Moses continued to paint until she passed away at 101 years old. In the 30 years that she dedicated herself to painting, she created more than 1,500 works of art, 25 of which were created after her 100th birthday. John F. Kennedy said of her work, “The directness and vividness of her paintings restored a primitive freshness to our perception of the American scene.” Grandma Moses proved that it’s never too late to start a new passion or pursue an old dream. After all, when she began selling her work in her late seventies, she charged $3-$5 a piece. In 2008, her painting Sugaring Off was sold for $1.2 million. But more important than the prices that her work continues to demand is the mark she leaves behind. A German fan explained, “There emanates from her paintings a light-hearted optimism; the world she shows us is beautiful and it is good. You feel at home in all these pictures, and you know their meaning. The unrest and the neurotic insecurity of the present day make us inclined to enjoy the simple and affirmative outlook of Grandma Moses.” Moses herself comments on her paintings and her life in a way that simply must be shared with your loved one, as her perspective is a beautiful way to view old age: “I look back on my life like a good day’s work, it was done and I feel contented, I knew nothing better and made the best out of what life offered. And life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.”

Vivienne Westwood

Vivienne Westwood’s clothes are the polar opposite of Grandma Moses's scenes of peaceful country living. Known as one of the most influential British fashion designers of the twentieth century, Westwood’s designs ignited the 1970’s punk movement and New Wave music, and her influence still thrives in culture today. When Westwood was in her 30s, she ran a boutique that sold her anti establishment, erotically charged designs. Her boutique became the heart of youth culture. Soon she was catapulted into fame when she earned the role as the Sex Pistol’s exclusive designed at the height of their stardom. Westwood’s designs influenced the masses of fans at the Sex Pistols show and to this day, she’s often cited as the creator of punk, at least in its visual form. Despite her growing fortune, Westwood continued to live modestly, renting a flat for $400 a month and riding her bike to her studio. Even as the punk movement faded, Westwood continued to push herself toward new innovations.

She’s always been unafraid to be controversial; at 63 years old, she sent men down the catwalk wearing fake breasts inspired by Fifties sweater boys. At 70, she traveled to Africa where she hired thousands of local women to help her make bags for her collection and earn a fair wage. English designer Jasper Conran once said, “Vivienne’s effect on other designers has been rather like a laxative. Vivienne does, and others follow.” To this day, at 77 years old, Westwood continues to create new styles and run a massive business with retail outlets around the world. Her energy is inspiring for older people, and her activism and radical spirit can remind your loved one that no matter your age, you still have a voice as important as anyone else’s.

Their lives have been exciting, but it’s impossible to get the full picture of these five miraculous women without diving into their work so go explore their art with your loved one. Enjoy discussing the thoughts and feelings that surface as you react to their work.