The Chat with Emily Urquhart

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In The Age of Creativity (House of Anansi Press), Emily Urquhart challenges us to reconsider our thinking around artistic practise and aging. She considers the late life work of her father, Tony Urquhart, who has begun to experience memory loss, to explore how artistic practise changes—but doesn’t necessarily diminish—over the life course.

For author Kyo Maclear, “This is a gift of a book, an ode to late style, a daughter’s devotional, a fascinating dive into art history, but above all a radical detonation of accepted notions of ageing and art. Emily Urquhart is a curious and frank guide, who captures her subject with clear and perfect brushstrokes.”

Emily Urquhart is a National Magazine Award-winning writer and has a PhD in folklore from Memorial University of Newfoundland. Her first book, Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of our Hidden Genes, was a Maclean’s bestseller, a finalist for the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction and a 2015 Globe and Mail Best Book. Her freelance writing has appeared in Hakai Magazine, Reader’s Digest and The Walrus among other publications. After a decade split between St. John's, Newfoundland and Victoria, British Columbia, she recently moved to Kitchener, Ontario with her husband and their two children.

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Trevor Corkum: The Age of Creativity explores your father’s artistic practise during the later part of his life, a time when he is beginning to confront the reality and impacts of memory loss. Can you talk about the impetus for the work, and how and why you began the project?

Emily Urquhart: It was an afternoon in fall 2016 and I was visiting the Art Gallery of Ontario with my father. We’d come from a memorial service for a family friend, and so that idea of finality, or, perhaps more apt, mortality was hanging in the air as we toured the gallery. My dad was in his early eighties at the time and I hadn’t yet considered that he was old, or elderly, but, I had noticed that people were beginning to react differently to him and his art practice. They were surprised, often amazed, that he was continuing to make art, to paint, to sculpt and to draw. For a long time, I didn’t question this reaction.

Then, on that afternoon at the gallery, my dad showed me an oil painting of his on display, a work he’d done in his twenties. It was a solid painting and  I could, with prompting, recognize his signature in the brushstrokes, but I felt that the work he was making at 80 was superior. His style had matured. He’d had the benefit of decades of practice.

I could, with prompting, recognize his signature in the brushstrokes, but I felt that the work he was making at 80 was superior. His style had matured. He’d had the benefit of decades of practice.

At first, like those people who felt my dad was amazing for continuing to make art, I thought the idea of him being a better artist in his eighties than in his twenties was remarkable. Then, I had a different thought: Could this be normal? I wondered, why wouldn’t his best work happen after decades of trial and error, experience, study, and constant, daily practice? Why do we, as a society, persistently believe the opposite when it comes to creativity and older people? These questions lit a fire for me, and I started researching the topic as soon as I returned from the gallery.

TC: Through interviews and analysis, you consider the late work of a number of artists and writers, asking us to reconsider the belief that creativity diminishes or declines with age. What are some of the key findings of your exploration?

EU: Creativity is notoriously difficult to study. Because of this, early researchers made some assumptions that are flat-out wrong, and one of these assumptions is that creativity plummets with age. The problem is that these early studies are all based on art products, so the number of paintings, or novels, or hit songs that an artist produces per year, and this will very often decrease with age for a variety of reasons—because we become slower, or because of age-related illness, or even, as with my father, as our strength decreases. (He isn’t able to make as many large-scale canvases or sculptures because he doesn’t have the same strength as he did at 40 or 50 years of age.)

Also, create is a verb. To create is an act, and this simply can’t be measured. Some days my father will consider a future painting by looking at his sketches that are pinned on a corkboard in his home, or by looking at works by other artists, or, even when he’s staring out the window. You simply can’t capture that in numbers.

TC: In terms of your father’s work in particular, you demonstrate how his creative output has altered with time, but also found new means and modes of expression. Where is your father’s artistic practice currently?

EU: These days, as with all of us in 2020, my father hasn’t ventured far from the confines of his home. In the past he travelled to Europe every spring to draw, inspired by churches, graveyards, and the natural world. Lately, his interest has been piqued by a long cylindrical bird feeder that hangs outside his kitchen window.

Most people would be interested in the birds, but my father is interested in the feeder as an object and over a series of sketches it’s taken on a kind of religious, shrine-like appearance, as if it were inspired by a chalice in a Sicilian church rather than a squirrel proof bird feeder. So, he’s continually adapting to his shrinking environment.

TC: How has your father responded to the book? How has it been received within your family and his circle of fellow artists?

EU: My father read an early version of the manuscript while visiting me in late fall. He said he’d underline the parts he liked. When I got it back, he’d underlined every sentence in the book.

Is this how he truly feels? I can’t say, but he’s always been supportive of my writing and was a willing participant in this project. I also can’t say how the book will be received by the rest of my family or my father’s peers as it’s only just come out, but I wrote this work from a place of love, so my hope is that their responses will be positive.

TC: Finally, how might our cultural institutions—and our cultural ecosystem more generally—better understand and engage with artists in late life, particularly those whose work may be shifting to accommodate the realities of older age?

EU: As a society, we’ve lost our way when it comes to respecting our elders. Seniors are an incredible resource, but we rarely call on them for input. While researching this book, I noticed that art institutions often had seniors programming in place for the general public, but I never once saw an art exhibit that specifically featured working senior artists.

The one exception is the Carter Burden Gallery in New York City, a commercial gallery that only shows work by artists over sixty years old. This might sound exclusionary, but it’s actually necessary, considering that many of the largest art prizes have age caps that immediately disqualify older artists. In particular, any grant or award that has "emerging artist" in the title removes a huge swath of the population from the competition. It’s important to remember that artists, for a variety of reasons, can emerge at any time. Basically, I think we need to re-wire how we view older artists, and to enact real change, those older artists need to be part of the conversation.
 
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Excerpt from The Age of Creativity

It was on a bright day in autumn, during the period when the friends of my parents had begun to die, that my father showed me one of his early paintings, and it changed the way I understood creativity — specifically, its longevity. It was September of 2016. The leaves were still green. We were visiting the Art Gallery of Ontario. Earlier in the day, we’d been at a memorial service that was housed in an airy glass enclosure that nevertheless felt suffocating. My father, who was then eighty-two, was wearing a grey suit coat and a tan collared shirt. His neon-green glasses hung on a string around his neck. His hair and beard, trimmed neatly that day, had been white since I was a teenager. He’d been easy to spot in the crowd that had gathered after the service. He never wore black. Not a suit coat, not his shoes, not even a tie. He’d grown up in a funeral home, so he’d seen enough black. It was a family business that stretched back four generations to the founder — sunken-eyed and ghost-like, the fading image of our ancestor hung in an ornate oval frame on the dining room wall of my childhood home. My father revered and respected this part of his past, but he would never become an undertaker. He would only ever be an artist.

Once in the gallery, my father led me to a boxy room on the second floor that showcased a small collection of Canadian postwar paintings. Here, he began to circle the room, his hands clasped neatly behind his back, his neck strained forward as he leaned in to examine certain paintings. It was a personal choreography that he performed in all galleries — the way he would get as close to the art as the rules allowed, his nose nearly grazing the canvas. His own art, the sculptures, not the paintings or drawings, were meant to be touched and repositioned, changed by the whim of the viewer. It was a conundrum, as it is forbidden to rearrange art on display in public galleries and discouraged in commercial and private collections. But then, my father’s work has never followed the rules. I’d witnessed him touch and move his own sculptures while passing through an art gallery, re-angling a door of one of his curio cabinets to better showcase the three-dimensional landscape within. This invariably alerted security. Years before, I’d watched with trepidation as my father rearranged one of his sculptures in a public gallery and a red-faced guard called in backup on her walkie-talkie, a garbled message I could not catch, but was probably something like, “There’s an old guy fiddling with a sculpture.”

This scene was no doubt familiar to her, someone leaning in too close, stray fingers, a bump from a handbag or backpack, but what she didn’t know was that this old guy had been fiddling with art all his life.

Excerpted from The Age of Creativity by Emily Urquhart. Copyright © 2020 Emily Urquhart. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press Inc., Toronto. All rights reserved. 

September 21, 2020
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