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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)

In 2005 West entered the manuscript in a contest sponsored by St. Martin’s Press. She lost the competition but won an unexpected consolation prize. "One morning there was an e-mail from mystery editor Ruth Cavin — she was 85 at the time! — offering me a contract for two mysteries. She had been a member of the contest jury, and I guess she disagreed with the verdict." West’s novel Without Warning was published in 2007; a sequel, Overkill, came out in 2009. Two more books are in the pipeline.

"I’ve had an 11th-hour plot twist," West acknowledges. "But I hope it inspires older writers to persevere. It’s a blessing to wake up in the morning with the urge to create."

Like West, Los Angeles–based painter Henry Taylor — whose raw, brightly colored works have been exhibited in Paris, Berlin, and New York City — knows about artistic setbacks.

The youngest of eight children, Taylor admired the example set by his hardworking parents — even if they didn’t quite share his love of art. "My father worked in maintenance at Point Mugu Naval Base," says Taylor, 52. "Dad loved baseball. Sports was the thing we shared. And my mom was a domestic worker. She was like, ‘Hey, just stay out of jail.’ But they had my back when I didn’t even know it."

He took some art classes at Oxnard College in his 20s and knocked around without much direction. For 10 years Taylor worked as an aide to psychiatric patients at Camarillo State Hospital, many of whom he found fascinating to draw (with their consent).

Taylor was in his mid-30s when, encouraged by two art teachers from Oxnard, he applied to the California Institute of the Arts. "I didn’t know what to do at that point," he says. "I just knew I needed to do something."

But going back to school didn’t solve all his problems. When Taylor graduated in 1995, he was pushing 40 and had two children to support (to say nothing of $20,000 in student loans to repay). Desperate for cash, he peddled his signature works — painted cigarette packs and laundry-soap boxes — from the trunk of his car. Today those painted boxes are considered folk art and fetch up to $1,500 apiece in galleries. Taylor’s larger paintings have commanded as much as $35,000.

His subjects are drawn mainly from African American life: friends, family, street people, famous athletes, or figures in the news. Sean Bell, a young New Yorker gunned down by police, shows up in "Homage to a Brother," a portrait in Taylor’s solo exhibition at Harlem’s Studio Museum in 2007, when he was 49. "Henry came to the art world late," says his New York representative, Joel Mesler. "But his work shows an insight that springs from experience."

Many an older artist sees her creativity bloom on the stage, not the easel. Joanne Grimm, 77, was a retired public-school teacher and principal in Oakland, California, who wanted to sharpen her storytelling skills as a volunteer in a Head Start reading program. "My lions sounded like hyenas," she recalls. "My elves sounded like mice." So she took a class at Stagebridge, Oakland’s acclaimed performing-arts center for older amateur actors.

"The skits and workshops they put you through made me realize this was something I enjoyed doing because it was something I could do well." Today Grimm performs lead roles in professionally produced dramas such as Molière’s Tartuffe, and does stand-up comedy routines for the Rotary Club.

After her husband, Roy, died of dementia in 2009, Grimm began to address nursing students about coping with the disease. She has also drawn on the experience for her stage performances. "Age may be only a number," says Grimm, "but every day should count."

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