When Alice Matzkin was 55, she did what a lot of us do. “I looked in a mirror and I started freaking out,” she says. But rather than fear the wrinkles spreading across her face, Matzkin, a portrait painter whose work had always been concerned with beauty, decided to explore the physical ravages of aging. Deep lines, gray hair, sagging flesh – bring ’em on.
Women of Age
In her first project, “Women of Age,” Matzkin created a series of 21 portraits of active and vital women aged 70 or older. Her subjects included an 81-year-old Hawaiian healer, an 83-year-old Buddhist nun and a 93-year-old metaphysician and author, as well as renowned women like potter and sculptor Beatrice Wood at 100, and the late writer and feminist Betty Friedan at age 85.
Quickly, her “project” transformed into her mission, one the painter shared with her husband of 29 years, the sculptor Richard Matzkin. Their intention, they say, has been to share what they’ve learned about growing older: “Aging is not the end of life but can be a positive new beginning and the crowning culmination of a lifetime,” they write on their website (click here to access the Matzkin’s site).
The Elephant In the Room
As Alice embarked on a journey to capture in paint the beauty of aging, Richard, 68, sculpted in clay his own fears about it. “Age is like the elephant in the room no one talks about,” he says. “I didn’t want to look at it, but it was there.”
“In simply looking at aging, turning the light on in the dark, I saw it more for what it was. What I saw was how precious this moment is.” —Richard Matzkin
Richard produced “Naked Old Men,” 12 small- and medium-sized bronze sculptures. In “Fear of Alzheimer’s,” a withered man sits with his knees to his chest, hands grasping his head, screaming in horror as a crow pecks at his head. “Some are like caricatures of my worst fears of aging: old men all bent over, the loss of vitality,” says Richard.
Other works reveal a more complex picture. In “Old Baby,” an elderly man’s face on a sleeping baby’s body speaks to the vulnerability of age. “We try not to sugarcoat it,” says Richard. “Aging is probably the most difficult part of life. But if people create a healthy foundation, an acceptance and a spiritual base, aging can be a time of deep harvest.”
Alice’s more recent portraits tackle her worries about her aging body. In her second portrait series, “Naked Truth,” she has created nude portraits of women who are comfortable with and confident about how their bodies have aged and changed; the works include a self-portrait, boldly revealing Alice’s makeup-free face, her uneven breasts.
In preparatory work for the series, Alice photographed her subjects in their own environments and allowed them to pose as they chose, whether standing perkily with one hand on a cane or reclining flirtatiously on a bed. One portrait shows a nude 68-year-old named Phyllis, who’d had a single mastectomy years earlier. She sits in an upholstered living room chair, bejeweled and made up, her one large breast hanging low against her ample belly. “She was missing a breast, but still she was a powerful, sensual woman. She looks regal,” says Alice.
A third series, “Aunt Kitty,” includes portraits of Richard’s aunt from ages 87 to 97. The first painting shows her active, independent, feisty; the last, painted a few hours before she died, is of a quiet, sweet and completely dependent woman, her memory gone. “She accomplished all this with total acceptance and grace,” Alice says.
Despite their lack of formal art training – Richard is a retired psychotherapist, Alice worked as a secretary and sold real estate, among other jobs – the Ojai, CA-based couple have made an impact by tackling a subject few others have touched.
Alice’s portraits of Wood and Friedan were purchased by the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian for its permanent collection and the couple were honored by the National Center for Creative Aging. Together, they published a book, “The Art of Aging: Celebrating the Authentic Aging Self,” and a DVD, “Women of Age: Portraits of Women, Beauty and Strength.”
Alice’s newest venture is senior take on the classic skin calendar. Instead of shiny bodies in skimpy bathing suits and shirtless firemen with rippling muscles, her 2012 wall calendar features 12 aging nudes.
For the Matzkins, acceptance of the aging body has been good for their art careers and for their relationship, too. Richard’s Lovers series, featuring bas relief and bronze sculptures of elderly couples in romantic embraces, is a tribute to his love for his wife.
“In simply looking at aging, turning the light on in the dark, I saw it more for what it was,” he says. “What I saw was how precious this moment is. That’s one of the things that’s happening to us,” he continues. “We’re enjoying the preciousness of every moment we have together.”