Photographing Older Women Artists
By Karen Ander Francis
Photo: Jafagirl Dianne Collinson identifies as a ‘builder’; photo: Nancy Mellon
Yellow Springs has always been, well, eccentric and edgy, artsy, and activist. Rooted in the mid-19th century when Horace Mann, education reformer and abolitionist, became the first president of Antioch College, these qualities remain alive and lively in this Green County village 20 miles northeast of Dayton.
A definite ’60s vibe is evident at the first sight of the “Springs” sign that greets visitors on Dayton-Yellow Springs Road. Deeper into town, a yarn-bombed telephone pole stops folks in their tracks.
“We want people to know this is an arts town,” says Corrine Bayraktarogla who, along with Nancy Mellon, founded Jafagirls 14 years ago.
Yarn-bombing is one of several artsy, edgy, eccentric, activist projects employed by this duo, to combat a “prevailing notion that beyond a certain age, women artists are a non-entity,” Bayraktarogla says. Their latest venture, Photographs of Older Women Artists (POWA), is unlike previous endeavors, such as Peeps in the Park, Off Our Rockers, and Bog Art (“bog” being a euphemism for public restrooms in Bayraktarogla’s native England). Although intended to counter prevailing notions about age, these exhibits remained confined to the village. The arts blog POWA has a global reach.
As Bayraktarogla admits, “Ironically, ageism is not as apparent in Yellow Springs,” but adds, “it can be very subtle until it grabs you.”
“That’s not your grandmother’s knitting!” was an early reaction to yarn-bombing and a remark the women considered sexist and ageist. “But we are your grannies,” Bayraktarogla insists. “That’s the whole point.”
“People are shocked that we’re not girls, but in a sense we are—jafagirls,” she explains. It stands for “just another f—— artist.” (By the way, any “f” word works: fabulous, feminine, female, fantastic.)
A personal, not-so-subtle experience of ageism and sexism “grabbed her” when, headed for a midlife career change, she encountered a college art teacher whose course she had taken “just for fun.” “He came right out and announced that he didn’t ‘waste time with bored, middle-aged housewives,’” she reveals. Despite this, Bayraktarogla was “hooked on art,” and social work faded in her rearview mirror.
Mellon, longtime curator of YS Arts Council’s permanent collection, points out that in the art world, “If you are not identified as an ‘emerging artist’ by the time you’re in the late 20s or early 30s, you are considered a failure. That is why, instead of a gallery exhibit, we decided to reach out through the blog to the virtual art world.”
POWA’s goal of presenting new models of aging grew, in part, from Mellon’s experience with her mother debilitating illness. “POWA is a way to show there is another version of how the later years can be,” she admits. “You can age and still grab joy from life.”
“Inside, I don’t know how old I am,” laughs Bette Kelly. “My body reminds me.” With a brace on her hand, sitting amid evidence of a lifetime of art-making, she recalls several occasions when her body has reminded her of limits.
Once a costumer/dresser for Dayton Opera, Dayton Ballet, and Human Race Theatre, she developed elbow problems, requiring screws and leading to “semi-retirement.” At the time, she rejoiced: “At last, I could make what I want because that is who I am and what I do.”
But when The Lion King toured Dayton several years ago, she returned to theatre, working as a laundress 54 hours a week. This time, pneumonia stopped her, filling 90 percent of her lungs and reminding her that “I had grown too old to work that intensely. I have learned to say ‘I can’t do that,’” Kelly says
Leaving the theatre for good, she turned again to a lifelong love of embroidery, creating her own designs and teaching her young granddaughter to carry on the family tradition. That is, until she injured her wrist this summer.
“I am happier when I’m active—it’s good for my head,” she says, explaining why she’s turned to reading, working 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles, and dancing. “Life is—art is—all a puzzle and figuring out how to shift the pieces to make them fit.”
Eager to return to needlework and frustrated with hand therapy exercises, ill-suited to rehabilitating fine motor skills, Kelly demonstrated embroidery to her hand specialist. In this teachable moment, the doctor was able to understand how she uses her fingers and prescribed appropriate exercises.
She remains optimistic. “It has always been important to make art and enjoy living,” Kelly says. “Don’t give up what you love—learn to accommodate.”
Another POWA artist, Dianne Collinson, rejects categories. She doesn’t like thinking of herself as “old,” “because most of life is behind,” she declares. And, she has never used “artist” to describe herself, preferring the word “builder,” one who aims “for an artful result in my making.” In the past, she made art as a seamstress, a painter, a decorator.
Collinson also dislikes limitations. Today her work is with clay, a medium that, she admits, keeps getting harder because it is very physical, requiring lots of heavy lifting. She has learned to ask for help and to limit the amount of clay she carries, emphasizing, “I don’t like these limitations,” even as she adapts.
Although Collinson has never faced sexism in her art-making, she knows what it means to feel “minimized, not seen, or ignored.” Noting a cultural bias toward 18-48 year-olds, she prefers “that everyone be seen individually, that no one is minimized, put in a box.” To artists, she advises, “Don’t censor yourself. Just make.”
She may dislike the notion of growing older, but Collinson feels no different now than when she was young. This builder and maker of art is “struck that we still look at the world the same as we did when we were young—from inside ourselves.”
To read more POWA profiles, please visit powartists.blogspot.com. Jafagirls are artists-in-residence, Aug. 2-Sept. 9, at Dayton Metro Library Northwest Branch, 2410 Philadelphia Dr. in Dayton. For more information, please visit jafagirls.blogspot.com
DCP freelance writer Karen Ander Francis is retired and enjoys doing whatever she loves in the moment. Reach her at KarenFrancis@DaytonCityPaper.com.