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Find Your Inner Genius

Late-blooming artists reveal how they tapped their creative talents—and how you can, too

group of creative people in front of painting

Our featured artists pose for a group shot. — Jim Wright (Producer: Anthony Moschini; Wardrobe Stylist: Angela Hastings; Set Design: Jesse Nemeth; Hair: Mako Mokin; Makeup: Kim White)

Her recent studio works ("a beautiful blend of Rivera and Rousseau," said one critic) make clear why Hernández feels she can no longer shortchange her talent. Curators at Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art evidently agree; Hernández will have a major solo exhibit there in January 2011.

Hernández contrasts her frame of mind as a younger artist with the more mature — yet no less fierce — spirit she brings to her work today. "Time and experience allow you to distill those feelings, and your skill, so you waste less effort," she says. "It’s the difference between a sauce you make in five minutes and one that you reduce and reduce and the flavor gets more intense and deeper. You’re left with a smaller amount, but the flavor is amazing."

For abstract painter Audrey Phillips, 54, creating art was a spontaneous reaction to grief. One morning in 1989, Phillips got a phone call at work from her father in Panama Beach, Florida. He was "just checking in," he claimed. But Phillips — then 33 years old and a recently divorced marketing executive at the Orlando Sentinel — sensed something was amiss; normally the voice checking in was that of her mother, Lola Mae.

That afternoon her father called again. "We’ve got a problem," he told Phillips. "Mom hasn’t been home since yesterday."

Two days after she went missing, Lola Mae’s body was discovered in a secluded wood near the Alabama border. She and an employee in her consignment shop had been abducted and murdered in a botched robbery. Their 22-year-old killer is now serving back-to-back life sentences.

Traumatized, Phillips began a decade-long slide whose casualties included her job and her faith. She got married again but divorced. She turned to therapy and yoga in a bid to salve the pain and quell the rage.

In 2000, Phillips was visiting a close friend in New Mexico who happened to be an artist. Aware that Phillips had studied graphic design before she went into marketing, the friend bought her some paper and pastels, and urged her to try some drawings.

Abruptly, the pictures tumbled forth. The subject: the killer’s face — one version after another in wild, furious, almost brutal renditions.

"I had been thinking about it a long time," Phillips reflects. "And it came out with such energy — I probably had 30 pieces of art when I was done. I was like, ‘Thank God that’s out on the page and not inside me anymore!’ "

Day after day for the next several years, Phillips patiently refined her technique, sometimes standing entranced before her easel for hours. Today she is an award-winning abstract artist who works in acrylic and encaustic wax in her home studio in New Smyrna Beach, Florida.

"Painting catapulted me through my final phase of grieving and loss," she reflects. "It basically saved my life."

Of all the qualities that distinguish older artists, perseverance may be the most vital. The tenacity of author Eugenia Lovett West, for example, paid off in her ninth decade. West had been writing on and off since the 1940s, when she married "a dashing fighter pilot" named Eric West. They had four children and lived on four continents as he climbed the corporate ladder of an aluminum company.

As their kids grew up and moved on, West began penning the occasional feature story for local newspapers. In 1979 she published a historical suspense novel, The Ancestors Cry Out, but it led to no further opportunities.

"This huge gap of time went by when I was writing but not getting published," says West, 87. She inventoried her talents, rediscovered her knack for suspense, and resolved to write a mystery.

Like many older artists, West profited from a lifetime of experience. Her first stab at mystery fiction — featuring resourceful, 47-year-old detective Emma Streat — drew freely on her own adventures as the attractive but grounded wife of a high-flying CEO. She shopped the manuscript around and got plenty of notice — rejection notices, that is, more than a dozen in all.

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