Henrietta Mantooth, 97, is an artist driven by deep love and fascination with other humans. CBS recently wrote about her: “To watch Henrietta Mantooth at work is to see a master channeling wit, wisdom and warmth into art.”
We spoke with Henrietta about how she went from mixing her own paints as a kid using laundry bluing, onions and berries from a mulberry bush to studying under masters like André Lhote in Paris, and eventually becoming a nationally renowned artist known for tackling systemic social issues with her work and in her everyday conversations. Learn more about her here…and see the “Coming Soon” note at the end the article for an exciting announcement!
What was your journey to becoming an artist?
I didn’t study art as a kid. Nowadays, people send their offspring to art classes or the Met, but you know I’m kind of glad I didn’t have any of that. Nobody told me what art was about so that early freedom kids have still exists in me.
I did have a lot of training later in life – in France, Italy, Greece, Brazil, New York – but before that, I was a journalist in Venezuela.
When I got married, my boss said he would give me a job in Brazil where my husband was working on the condition that I take two months off to adjust to married life. I got so angry! What about my husband having to adjust? But during those two months I started going to model drawing classes three times a week. So that’s how I adjusted to marriage – I got connected with art again.
What inspires you?
I’m very drawn to social issues. Once a critic came to a solo show of mine and said: “Henrietta is an unabashed humanist.”
“Aging slows you down in a lot of ways, but it didn’t slow down my desire to express what I need while I’m still alive.”
I’ve done a lot of paintings and drawings about refugees. In the last few years, I’ve been concerned with mass incarceration in America. The installation I’m doing now has the theme: “We Are Real.” It’s based on an article from the brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates (read “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” here).
Ever since I grew up as white child in a totally segregated Kansas City, Missouri, I have been interested in race and what has been happening forever in our country. In fact, it was at the second “Jailbird” installation that I started asking people the question: “How has segregation affected your life?” Because we’re all affected in some way by racism.
One time I asked a taxi driver the question – he turned around and said, “you mean it’s over?” So, I’ve changed the verb tense to “how does segregation affect your life?”
Why do you keep asking people this question?
I ask out of deep feeling a need to talk to each other.
I find that people welcome opening up. Even when I go to a cocktail party, there is always someone who is willing to share their experience and open their heart.
What does Aging with Attitude mean to you?
Aging slows you down in a lot of ways, but it didn’t slow down my desire to express what I need while I’m still alive.
Plus, being old gives a lot of freedom. You know – I think I’m really seeing my art for the time in my life!
Coming Soon: Mark your calendars on May 10th, 1:30pm ET for Senior Planet’s Artist Panel: “Creative Expression for Civic Engagement.” This virtual event will feature Henrietta Mantooth as a panelist along with other influential older adult artists as they discuss their work and activism.
The People We Love series is a monthly interview that highlights older adults across the country who are Aging with Attitude and changing the world around them by doing so. This series is brought to you by the Senior Planet Supporter program.
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Pam Hugi is Senior Planet’s Community and Advocacy Manager. Based in Brooklyn, she runs Senior Planet’s Supporter program in addition to being a contributing writer for this site. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: (top) Erica Lansner