An Artist’s Art of Aging: Older American’s Month Celebrates Trail Blazers

May is the month when we celebrate Older American’s Month (OAM) at which time we acknowledge the contributions of those sixty-five and over to our nation. The 2016 OAM theme is “Blaze a Trail”.  We are living longer and more healthfully than ever before and with that comes the time to discover new passions, renew those put on the back burner, follow dreams, learn new skills or use old skills.  Our older years can be an exciting time of reinventing ourselves.  In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count.  It’s the life in your years.”  Expressing oneself through the arts is one way of finding and feeding our creative side and blazing that trail to reinvention.

Barbara Donnelly, a native New Englander and Beverly resident, is one such trail blazer. I call her an Artiste Extraordinaire and have admired both her work and her life for over twenty-five years.  Barbara has been capturing scenes of the North Shore (and beyond) in her paintings for almost fifty years.  Her credentials are impressive and maybe even intimidating to the novice artist.  She is a professional artist member of The Rockport Art Association, The North Shore Art Association, The New England Watercolor Society, The Copley Society of Art and the list goes on.

I sat in Barbara’s home surrounded by her paintings on the walls to learn more about her illustrious career. She retrieved from her basement the first oil painting she did at the age of fourteen.  Even she, after all these years, is still surprised by her first work of oil portraiture, painted without drawing first.  Growing up, creativity surrounded Barbara.  Her father was an engineer, inventor, a musician, and had a talent for drawing.  “My father’s side of the family was very creative.  I grew up making things with my grandfather and at the age of five was working on his lathe with him making wood turnings.  My earliest memories are of me always drawing.  I thought everyone drew.”

Barbara recalls that at the age of twelve, she visited the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston for the first time. She remembers standing in front of John Singer Sargent’s painting, “Daughters of Edward Darby Boit” and feeling inspired and that she just had to paint.  From that moment creating art through drawing and painting was what she did and is still doing. Barbara’s closest friends were those involved in the arts and at the suggestion of a friend’s mother who belonged to the MFA, she and the friend signed up for Saturday classes at the Museum.  The two girls travelled into Boston alone at the age of twelve and thirteen via train and subway to attend those classes.

Barbara’s love of drawing continued to blossom through her Beverly High School years. Girls were not allowed to take drafting classes at that time but Barbara was serious about math and learning drafting as she was interested in architecture. With the support of a couple teachers and her sheer determination, she succeeded in being admitted into the class.  She was the only girl in that drafting class at Beverly High.

Barbara wanted to go to New York City, which was where the art world was the most vibrant. She had wanted to study architecture because she knew she would always paint regardless.  The goal was seen with some hesitation by her parents and the decision was made that she would attend Boston University and major in Art.  “My focus was on commercial art because that was the better chance of getting a job after graduating.”

With degree in hand, Barbara worked as a draftsman in the mechanical engineering department for CBS-Hytron, advancing to design drafting for two years before marrying. Her husband’s career meant relocation and without paid employment, Barbara taught herself sewing and took her love of art to decorating.  She soon became a mother raising six children. Her family always came first, but during those very busy years of motherhood, Barbara always found ways to do art.  She was engaged in projects for which people would ask her to volunteer; making costumes, painting backdrops, doing portraits for friends and other freelance work.  After she would get their six children to bed she would forgo sleep and concentrate on her art work till all hours.  “My father always said that anything more than four of sleep was a waste of time, and I believed him.”

Barbara signed up at Beverly High School for night classes in Decorative painting and it was during that time she was encouraged to teach Basic Drawing and Beginner’s Oil Painting. Eventually she added Advanced Oil Painting and Watercolor Painting classes.  Her teaching began in 1969 and she has been teaching ever since.  She continued studying with various artists and her art evolved.  People began to know her work and commission her to paint.  “My painting has changed over the years.  It starts with skill development but it’s a style and a focus that changes.  It reflects life.”

Barbara expounds on the benefits of the arts in our lives, particularly as we age. “Any creativity, such as music, dance, writing, painting, involves joy.  You have to think back to when you were a child.  What made you happy as a child?  That is still in you, but you just have to find it; whatever brings you joy.  Creating is playing.  You play and that’s how you learn.  Art is a vacation for your mind and soul.”

Barbara sees that art engages us. “You may not know your own talents because of being busy earning a living or raising a family.  When responsibilities are less, one is free to explore and learn. I can teach anyone to draw if they want to.  I can’t give them the creative part though.  You have to have the drive to do it.  You aren’t trying to make a masterpiece; it’s in little steps.  I learned more about painting by teaching and that’s what evolved my art.”

At age eighty-three, Barbara says she has the stamina but she now has to pace herself and listen to her body. “If you stop doing things as you get older, you will age faster.  As an older adult you have to get involved; volunteer, connect, get online, and do something.  I’m living my life like I’m going to be 100.  Something will happen sometime but I’m not sitting around waiting.  I want my life to be for the better as far as my health is concerned, so I have made changes and I feel better for it.”

Despite the fact that Barbara Donnelly has God-given talent, what I so admire is her openness to learning and how she embraces every opportunity to grow. Before travelling to France to paint, she studied conversational French.  She admits to needing to brush up on her Adobe Photoshop knowledge and plans to find a learning opportunity to do so.  Recently she began a yoga program to support her goal of good health.

Barbara may not be reinventing herself so much as continuing to explore new opportunities to grow and add to her repertoire of skills. She has been a lifelong learner.  She is a true trail blazer to emulate; an inspiration to blazing our own trails.

Author Info

Jayne Girodat

Jayne Girodat is the Communications Specialist at North Shore Elder Services. Along with ten years in the position of Caregiver Support Specialist at another ASAP, Jayne was a long-distance caregiver to parents for the same amount of time. That experience serves as motivation to better understand the issues of aging and to engage people in conversations about those issues. Jayne's background in teaching contributes to her appreciation of social media as a tool to educate readers on aging concerns. "I love asking people questions. Everyone likes to be heard. When you ask and then listen, you'll find everyone has a story and some of those stories are gems. I think it is particularly important to hear the voices of our older adults. Those are the stories I really connect to and hope to bring to North Shore Elder Services' audience."

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