The Art of Aging

Thanks to Professor Emerita Marie Eaton of Fairhaven College, Western Washington University, ASA is able to publish these gorgeous portraits by Sarah Lane, accompanied by insightfully edited interviews by Richard Scholtz with the subjects, all of whom live in Whatcom County, Washington. 

One of the elements addressed in the Aging Well Whatcom Blueprint is Cultural Shift, acknowledging that “our community has an incomplete and often negatively biased vision of aging.” One of the expressed goals of this initiative is that “our community will have a full, honest understanding of the entire range of the realities of aging.”

The Art of Aging project was started because we recognized that although we know a lot about aging, most of what we know are broad brushstrokes. The details are missing. Important details. Reading statistical and demographic data, we cannot see the unique features that grace the face of each aging person. When we look across our community, as a whole, we cannot possibly see the laugh lines and creases of sorrow of each individual’s experiences or hear their voice or rhythms of their thoughts.

The Art of Aging project is one step toward exploring some of the details of aging through series of portraits and recorded interviews reflecting diverse experiences of older adults in Whatcom County, Wash., as told through their own words.

A collaboration between Marie Eaton, Sarah Lane, and Richard Scholtz, the project will produce 20 painted and audio portraits throughout 2021.

Marie Eaton is professor emerita of Humanities and Education, Fairhaven College, Western Washington University. She was the founding director and is the community champion for the Palliative Care Institute at Western Washington University. She has a long-standing passion for improving serious illness and end of life care.

Sarah Lane is an artist, following the call to honor and illuminate life through art. Whether she is painting landscapes, rendering anatomical-botanicals in mixed media or creating portraits, Lane is moving through painting and prayer simultaneously, offering gratitude for what is before her. She lives in Puget Sound with her family.

Richard Scholtz has been a professional musician for almost 50 years. He has recorded more than 70 CDs in music and spoken word over the past 25 years. His recordings have been used for many dance and theater performances. He led research funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to begin to answer the question “What is health and where does it come from?” and for 20 years collaborated in reimagining our healthcare system.

The Art of Aging portraits were painted by Sarah Lane and audio engineering and “audio sculpting” was provided by Richard Scholtz. Our collaboration brought together wonderfully different ways of "paying attention" to our conversation partners, the visual and the auditory revealing different details.

We spent an hour with each conversation partner, starting with a few prompting questions, but mostly following their lead as we reflected together about what it means to grow older. Every conversation was rich and revealing, shaped by the topics and stories they wanted to tell but also influenced by our own curiosity and the individual character and experiences of each person. The audio snapshots you will hear are just a sketch, capturing some of the themes and insights that emerged, and the portraits, painted from screen shots, frame these details.

Our goal was to find the strong stories and images that best communicate their stories—and how those experiences have created the person they have become. After the audio was edited and shaped, we shared the condensed audio clip and portrait with each conversation partner to be sure that they still recognized themselves in what we created, giving them the final approval for what we share here.

Because of the pandemic, all of the interviews were done via Zoom, and although this medium has its limitations, in some ways it also allowed us to connect with members of the community that may have been harder to visit in person. Using Zoom to gather audio and visual information can be limiting, and the audio-video quality varied in each conversation, based on our individual hardware, software and internet connections. However, just as when the light fades, hearing may become a bit more keen, our senses were heightened to the whole experience of each conversation, almost synesthetic, as stories crossed the boundaries of our senses.

Each of these conversation partners let us know that they appreciated a venue to tell their stories and felt honored to be invited. We also learned that older adults are not a homogeneous group. While some common themes begin to emerge, our stronger impression is of the uniqueness of each life and the clarity that can come with living a long life. Their stories are diverse, vital and rich, pulsing with color and light, sound and vibration, and great love for this world, their community and those who will come after them.

We hope these portraits and the words of each participant will illustrate some of the richness of experiences, cultures, ethnicities and identities of older adults in our community.