The Art of Aging: Mothers of Invention

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Jo Myers-Walker lives and works in an old bank building in Gilbert, Iowa. She has a shop where she sells her watercolors, brightly colored sculptures, ceramics, and multimedia pieces. The mother of four grown children, Myers-Walker supported herself and her kids as a working artist for decades, through two marriages and long periods of single mamadom. It’s sometimes a hard scrape life—she once bartered art for her youngest daughter’s orthodontic work—but she’s proud to have made it work.

“People come to my shop and find out I live here, too, and say, ‘You’re living your dream!’” she says. “You can tell from their voice that they haven’t been able to live theirs.”

Part of Jo’s dream was being home and available to her kids when they were small. About six years ago, that way of life came full circle when her parents, whose health was beginning to fail, returned to Iowa from their retirement home in Arizona in order for her to help care for them. They moved into an assisted living home, and Jo visited once or twice a day. But she wanted to include them in her work and get them out of the quiet setting of the home.

She converted a shed into a woodworking studio for her dad, who had been a longtime woodworker, painting the outside pink so that it looked Provençal. “He’d arrive in the morning and work on the lathe,” she says. Jo sold his pieces in the shop and also to the wholesalers who purchase her work for regional galleries. When he became too weak to build pieces, Jo bought old furniture for him to refurbish, and sold those in the shop, too.

Many days, Jo’s mother, Josephine, greeted visitors to the shop. “We like to pretend up here,” she laughingly explains of the whimsy she encourages in her studio-shop, where she also teaches classes. “Mother wore a purple boa to greet customers. People loved it. Many of them had older parents, and they understood.”

Iowa has the largest population of people over eighty, so Jo has seen many residents from Gilbert and nearby Boone—the town in which grew up and where her dad ran the local dairy—enter their final years. At sixty-three, she has many friends who are dealing with elderly parents. When it was clear that her parents needed extra attention and that she’d be their primary care taker, she conscientiously decided to do things differently.

“I saw how people felt burdened by their parents, and I thought, I don’t want to go there,” she remembers. “I told myself, ‘It’s not going to be forever, and besides, look at what they gave me.’” She reverted to the same caretaking model she’d used with her kids—include them in her art and enjoy them, rather than exclude them and resent them.

In addition to giving her parents real jobs, which, especially in her dad’s woodworking, gave them a sense of validation, she divided her day accordingly. “When they were around, I might not tackle an entire painting, but I could cut paper, make sketches, or clean the studio.” As she had with her kids, she also became thankful for any amount of time for her own work, learning to paint or sculpt in short bursts. “I always laugh at artists who tell me they just need to find a chunk of time!” she chuckles at the thought of such an enigmatic gift.

Last summer, Josephine was diagnosed with lung cancer. At first, Jo felt unprepared for the news and the prospect of starting hospice care in the nursing home where her mom had lived since suffering a stroke. But her mother had a great attitude, accepting that her time was at its end and determined to die gracefully. Buoyed by such positivism, Jo decided to do everything possible to help her. She brought painting supplies to her mother’s room and worked there every day, so that they could talk when Josephine had the energy. Jo read aloud the biographical sketches her mother had written over the years. It quickly became apparent that Josephine wanted to paint, as well.

“I’d put paper across her belly and wet it so that when she placed her brush down, there would be instant color,” Jo says. Sometimes Josephine would paint something based on the stories the two had been reading together. Other times, Jo would ask a simple question as a prompt; “What are you afraid of?”

Toward the end, Josephine put gold in most of her paintings and included a portal in each scene. These openings struck Jo as very symbolic, and she began including them in her own work. Mother and daughter showed their work at the local hospital, an event that filled Josephine with pride. “She needed a voice, a way to be valued,” says Jo.

Josephine died in September, and since then Jo has returned to her studio in the bank building. She says that her colors and lines have clarified. “I’m coming out of the fog,” she says, explaining that painting is her way of healing.

The final months with her mother, with whom she’d sometimes had a rocky relationship over the years, were certainly filled with much of their own healing balm. The nurses, who were present, often told Jo that they wanted her around when they died. But Jo doesn’t think she was doing anything that unusual, just keeping her mother in the present.

“When people are dying,” she says, “they’re on the edge. They can get to the essence of things.” This ability is lost to many of us during the day-to-day of our lives, or greatly dimmed, but Jo Myers-Walker seems to have tapped into it long before her time.

Art courtesy of Jo Myers-Walker


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