Friday, January 14, 2011



Cezanne: The Plodder
     Like the flowers of the metaphor, there are many varieties of late bloomers. While most people think of late bloomers simply as late starters, many actually have been working away at their art for decades. Some just are late-to-be recognized. The world needed time to discover them. Or rediscover them. In some cases, of course, it was the artists themselves who needed time -- to get good. It's the latter kind of late bloomer  that Malcolm Gladwell describes in a 2008 New Yorker article on Late Bloomers (one of the magazine's most emailed pieces in its history). Inspired by a study by economist David Galenson entitled "Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity," which compares the incandescent rise of Picasso with the slogging career of Cezanne, Gladwell contrasts the writing life and habits of Ben Fountain, who achieved success late in life, with the much younger Jonathan Safran Foer whose rise to fame was meteoric.

      I like to think of Cezanne and Ben Fountain as Plodders (and I mean that in the kindest of way). They are among the five varieties of late bloomers I've discovered:
     Some late starters have had a lifelong desire to be a writer, painter or musician, but have been sidetracked by family duties, work obligations and/or fear of failure. Late in life, these classic late bloomers are finally able to realize their dreams.
     EXAMPLE: Working as a nurse and raising children (including the future writer Ann Patchett), Jeanne Ray couldn't indulge in what she called her "little joy time" activity. When the kids were raised though, she completed her first novel, Julie and Romeo, about two aging lovers. She was 60.
     Not everyone dreams of creative pursuits, but some crusading late bloomers are drawn to launch creative careers to champion a cause or to share a lifetime of expertise.
     EXAMPLES: Helen Prejean was 54 when she wrote "Dead Man Walking," a book that inspired an Oscar-winning movie (and a national debate) on capital punishment. Dr. Ruth was 55 when she wrote "Dr. Ruth's Guide to Good Sex" and launched her sex advice radio program.

      Some writers, painters and musicians start working early on their art but they are plodders. They need time to get it right, only achieving their best late in life.
     EXAMPLE: Karl Marlantes took three decades and many rewrites to finally finish Matterhorn, his novel based on his experience as a Marine on combat tour during the Vietnam War. "Over the years, the book got better," he says. He finally published it, to critical acclaim, in 2010. He was 65.
     Some creative people who have been working at a high level of achievement for decades have had to wait a long time for the world to recognize their genius.
Susan Boyle's debut album.
     EXAMPLES: Susan Boyle, who had been singing all her life, was unemployed and never kissed when she appeared at age 48 on Britain's Got Talent and was turned into an international singing sensation. According to Guinness World Records, she is the oldest person to reach number one with a debut album in the UK. After decades of work, Carmen Herrera sold her first painting at age 89. Now at 95, she is one of the world's most collectible living artists (see post below).
     Some people achieve success early in life and then fade from view only to reappear stronger than ever.
     EXAMPLES: Comedian Betty White in her late eighties staged a heralded "comeback" in the field she never left. Oscar-winning actor Anthony Hopkins has been excelling in a completely different creative pursuit: In his seventies, he is touring as a concert pianist.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


     Whenever I mention that I am working on a book about creative late bloomers, someone inevitably says, "Oh, you mean Grandma Moses?"

     Now I have nothing against that sweet lady. But isn't it interesting -- and a bit irritating -- that so many of the more modern -- and bolder -- examples of creative late bloomers have not received the same attention that Grandma Moses has?

     It's as if there can only be an exception to the rule of young genius as long as that exception is a sweet old grandmother who paints pretty, completely non-threatening pictures.

     Yes, Anna Mary Robertson Moses turned to painting when arthritis made it impossible for her to embroider when she was 76. Yes, she continued to paint until her death at age 101. Yes, her paintings have hung in nine museums in the United States, Austria and France. All amazing facts. But she has always been presented as a sort of Sunday painter, a naive or primitive artists, terms used for those who are not to be taken too seriously. Certainly she was never considered to be an equal to her male counterparts in audacity and innovation.

Zeitgeist Films' documentary starring Louise Bourgeois, directed by Marion Cajor and Amei Wallach
     She was no Louise Bourgeois.

     Bourgeois, most known for her giant sculptures of spiders, was a fierce and daring sculptor who also achieved international recognition late in life. She did have some early success, but then was ignored by the art world for decades. It wasn't until her 70th birthday, when the Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective of her work, that she finally gained fame. When she died at age 98, still working in her studio, she was hailed as one of the world's greatest sculptors.

    Hererra is also a Late-To-Be-Recognized Late Bloomer. Unlike Grandma Moses, Herrera had been painting for years before being discovered. Sixty years. She sold her first artwork when she was 89  years, after almost six decades of persistence! Like Bourgeois, she always followed her own artistic impulses, even if that meant she had to wait for the world to catch up with her genius. She refused to give in to the artistic fads of the day, but continued to paint exquisite abstract work. She is now one of the world's most collectible living artists.

     Most of us first heard of the Cuban-born artist, thanks to an article in December, 2009 by Deborah Sontag in the New York Times who reported on the then 94-year-old whose abstract paintings have now entered the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn and the Tate. Sontag presented Herrera as a feisty woman who was thankful for her late husband's support of her work over the years (he was a Manhattan English teacher who taught with memoirist Frank McCourt) but who had enough self-esteem to take credit for her own success:

     "Everybody says Jesse must have orchestrated this from above," Herrera told Sontag. "Yeah, right, Jesse on a cloud...I worked really hard. Maybe it was me."

     Maria Niles includes that excerpt in her January 7 blog, "The Beauty of the Late Bloomer," at BlogHer Says Niles: 
     "I am happy that I have been introduced to Carmen Herrera while she is still alive and not after she has passed as too often is the case," writes Niles. "I have fallen in love with her paintings. But I have also been inspired by her story."

     Hererra, according to a recent interview by Helena de Bertodano in the Telegraph, is not thrilled with her new-found fame. "Really, fame is ridiculous. I didn't used to bother anyone and no one bothered me.Now I am paying because they are paying me."

     But at 95, she is still painting -- and grateful to be selling her work. "The money is useful because at the end of life, to my amazement, you need a lot of help. Otherwise I would end up in a nursing home. And I dread that," she told de Bertodano.

     Also grateful are those of us who are looking for more modern and challenging creative late bloomers than Grandma Moses.



Tuesday, January 11, 2011


“I think age is an advantage to a writer/artist because there is a great pool of living to draw from.”
-- Erma J. Fisk, a lifelong birdwatcher, who wrote her first book about birds at age 78
     Procrastination is not always a bad thing – if you time it right. When I was in college, I read a book on procrastination called “Procrastination Pays” that provided helpful advice on how long you could put off paying your electricity bill before you would get cut off for non-payment (beware when the little man shaking his finger at you disappears from the letterhead). Putting off a creative life also needs to be timed right. You can get too sick to dance, to make music or to paint or you may die before you get that book out. But age does give an artist one leg up on younger counterparts: Time gives you plenty of opportunity to accumulate great material for your work.  Life is a terrific research tool. 
     Harriet Doerr followed her husband to Mexico where he ran his family-owned copper mine. When her husband died, she returned to finish her degree at Stanford and, at age 74, tapped into those experiences in Mexico to write her first novel, Stones for Ibarra.  "The real events are like grains of sand on a huge beach of possible images," she  told an interviewer when asked if the novel was based on her life. "The stories are all made up; they're not autobiographical. But I have lived them.” Stones for Ibarra won the National Book Award. 
     Penelope Fitzgerald raised a family and worked in a bookshop before publishing her first book, a biography, when she was 58. Two years later, she published her first novel, a murder mystery that she had written to amuse her husband. Her next four novels were all based on her life experiences, including one called The BookShop.  
     In her columns, anthologized in Post Scripts: A Writing Life After 80, Laverne Hammond (my mom) liberally used her life as a mother and wife as fodder, telling stories about having her baby in a Florida hurricane and giving advice on how to keep romance alive in a marriage. 
      These women were all classic late bloomers: Each wanted to be a writer when they were young, but put aside that dream to raise a family or work for a living. When they did begin to write -- in their late fifties, seventies and eighties -- they had a lifetime of research at their fingertips.
     But even those who never dreamed of a creative career can tap into their lifetime of experiences and launch a creative career late in life. I like to think of them as "sudden late bloomers."
     Erma J. Fisk, for example, never thought of writing a book. But she was a lifelong birdwatcher.  When she was 73, with her husband gone and her children grown, she went to live alone for five months in a cabin in the foothills of Arizona's Baboquivari Peak, recording and banding birds for The Nature Conservancy.  Her notes became the basis for her first book, Peacocks of Baboquivari, published when she was 78. She went on to write three more books about birds. Diana Athill edited the works of other writers, but never got around to writing her own. It was only after years in publishing when someone convinced her to write about her exciting career. And when someone urged her to write about growing old, the result, Somewhere Near the End, won the lucrative Costa Award for autobiography and was nominated for the National Book Critics Award for autobiography. She was 91.
     So take heart. If you can't find enough time to write, paint or make music -- too busy with the kids or the job -- don't think you're wasting your time. You're doing research.