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Find Your Inner Genius

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

Great musicians tend to start out young. But 65-year-old Memphis bluesman Mack Orr—Daddy Mack, to his many friends and fans — did not begin playing guitar until he was 45.

"I was listening to the radio in my auto-repair shop," Orr says. "They were playing an Albert King song — 'Walkin' the Back Streets and Cryin' — and it sounded real good." The down-home groove spurred Daddy Mack to fulfill a long-deferred dream: "I went down to the pawnshop, got me a guitar and amp," he says. "And I carried that guitar everywhere I went. If I went to work, I carried it with me. If I went fishing, I carried it. I stayed on it day and night."

It seemed like a mighty challenge for a middle-aged man. But Daddy Mack knew a thing or two about hard work. He had toiled in the cotton fields of  Mississippi in the 1950s and worked as a heavy-equipment operator when he moved to Memphis in 1965. Along the way he also got married, raised four children, and opened his own business, Mack’s Auto Repair.

Determined to progress musically, Orr practiced guitar licks in the cab of his construction crane between loads, wearing a hard hat in place of the soft tan fedora he sports onstage today. "And at home I had to practice in the bathroom," Orr says. "My wife didn't like that noise around the house."

"I had all these ideas stored in drawers — and my head. I never let go of the dream that someday I'd come back to it."

The long hours of practice paid off. Within three years Daddy Mack was playing gigs around Memphis. He has since become a latter-day blues legend, jamming with Keith Richards and Ron Wood of The Rolling Stones, performing at festivals across the United States and Europe, and recording four CDs — including his latest, Bluesfinger. "I never dreamed I’d go to the places I’ve been," he says.

Mack Orr is part of a groundswell of older Americans finding deep fulfillment through the arts and immersing themselves in new pursuits later in life. Some do it just for fun; others have won public acclaim.

Studies of brain plasticity — the lifelong ability of our gray matter to adapt to changing demands — are proving that our creative horizons need not narrow with age. "We never lose the potential to learn new things as we grow older," says Gay Hanna, head of the National Center for Creative Aging. "In fact, we can master new skills and be creative all our lives."

Nor are we genetically hardwired with artistic gifts — or a lack of them. Environmental factors and willpower are just as important. "Genes impact our lives," says David Shenk, author of The Genius in All of Us, "but our lives also impact our genes — the brain changes shape according to the experiences it has."

The implications of this are profound, he believes: "Most of us don’t understand that our true inner potential is quite extraordinary. Not just at age 20 or 40 but well into our elder years. The main reason people stagnate is that they limit themselves through their mind-set or habits. Or they simply set their sights too low."

Though it’s natural to mourn what we lose as we age — be it our hearing, our hair, or our house keys — older artists offer vivid proof of what we may gain in wisdom, insight, and purpose.

Consider the odyssey of Judithe Hernández. Known for murals she created in Los Angeles during the 1960s and ’70s, Hernández suspended her artwork for decades to focus on marriage, motherhood, and her career as a university art instructor in Chicago, where she resettled in 1984. But her creative passion continued to simmer. "I drew when I could, but that wasn’t often," she recalls. "I had all these ideas stored away in file drawers — and in my head. And I never let go of the dream that someday I’d come back to it."

At 62, with her marriage ending and her only child poised to enter college, Hernández is returning to L.A. to resume her artistic career — this time as a maker of symbol-rich pastel drawings.

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.

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."

Creative renewal can also spring from switching pursuits later in life. Figurative painter Margaret Tcheng Ware, 64, enjoyed a long career as a dancer and choreographer before being sidelined by divorce, remarriage, and motherhood. By her early 50s she was feeling "cloaked in a kind of flatness," so she signed up for a drawing class at a local art institute. "From the moment I set brush to canvas," says Ware, "it was clear I had found something that engaged me."

Within a few years she was exhibiting her works and selling them to private collectors — a blossoming she credits to something deeper than raw talent: "Those years in dance taught me discipline and hard work," she says. "And from being a dance teacher I could see when a figure was out of alignment; I could see when the weight wasn’t where it should be."

There’s a time to forge ahead purposefully, Ware has learned, and a time to let your instincts lead the way: "So much creativity happens when you’re least conscious of it. Soak in as much visual and physical experience as possible — it’s all grist for the mill. Somehow — don’t ask me how — it will come out in what you do creatively."

Perhaps it makes sense that Ware and her fellow artists struggle to pinpoint their motivation. Every creative talent is unique, and the "why" question can yield answers that change as an artist gains self-understanding.

Then again, sometimes the spur to achieve is simple — and extrinsic. Dorothy, Daddy Mack Orr’s wife of 45 years, has been an unwitting mainstay of  his motivation: "I’d be messing with the guitar at the house," he remembers, "and she would tell me, ‘ You might as well throw that thing out. You’ll never learn how to play — you’re too old.’ It made me try that much harder."

And now? "Now she looks at me in a whole different way," says Daddy Mack.

Jamie Katz has written for Vibe, People, and Smithsonian magazines.

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