Many things make us scared of old age. Youthful beauty vanishing into the deep creases of old skin, becoming obsolete among society, losing our mental and physical capacities, the mere pain of it all and, of course, what all these things signify: the menacing closeness of death.
Dallas-based artist Amy Werntz is certainly aware of all that fear (and even experiences it herself), but she recognizes that there’s something amiss in it.
“Our society is so hung up on what beauty is,” Werntz says, “and wisdom and age are just not revered as much in our culture as they are historically or in other cultures.”
A recognition of this lack of reverence toward the elderly is part of what inspired Werntz to paint her realistic portraits of older people. After becoming an artist professionally in 2010, she began the project in 2011, painting either family members or working from a few photographs she had found. Since then, she’s sought out her subjects in places that the elderly are wont to frequent “like the quilt expo or the bookstore.”
Scanning through her portfolio, one sees more portraits of the elderly than of anything else. All are purposefully set against nondescript backgrounds that keep the focus on the subjects. Were Werntz to include the backdrop of a hospital, nursing home or living room, then the viewer would instantly understand more about the condition of the subject — whether they are healthy, whether they are happy. As it is, all that one sees is the person and their oldness, and the beauty that encompasses an abstract depiction of age. This abstraction comes down to Werntz’s process.
The artist captures candid reference photos, and doesn’t get to know the people she’s painting. The personal distance she keeps between her subject and herself allows her to get close to the aging process itself, rather than the individual subjects. Painting the elderly is a way to face her own fear of getting older and of being forgotten. These fears don’t bespeak some private, hidden anxiety of Werntz’s; they are universal fears common to more or less every human.
Thus, this fear is shared both by Werntz’s subjects and the viewers of her artwork, and mirrored by the love we all have for the aging people in our lives. “Some people see the paintings and they feel uncomfortable because they don’t feel comfortable with the idea of aging. Some people see them and they love them because it makes them think of someone special,” Werntz says of people’s reactions to her paintings. This is the dichotomy present in Werntz’s paintings: love toward an individual aging person, and disgust toward aging itself.
That dichotomy extends to the subjects as well. No person, regardless of their age, considers themselves solely in terms of the age group they’re a part of. To be painted for the sake of one’s old age is a reminder that one is old to begin with. It’s perfectly reasonable to be sensitive to one’s old age: in our culture and society, as Werntz has observed, growing old often means loneliness, physical pain and exclusion from a youth-centric world. Being considered old, or considering yourself old, doesn’t seem a beneficial position for a person to be in. For this reason, Werntz is fairly secretive about painting her subjects, who are chosen mainly because of their age.
“There are instances where I’ve talked to someone about painting them, and it doesn’t ever work out the way that I hoped,” says Werntz. Even her own grandmother hasn’t seen the painting done of her.
Seeing a painting of oneself is perhaps the truest way to learn how another person perceives you. Most of us can imagine seeing a portrait of ourselves depicted with wrinkly skin and an aged posture — and seeing ourselves painted like that would force us to realize that that is indeed how we look.
But Werntz’s intention is not to horrify the elderly with the reality of their appearance, she says. “I would never want anyone to think that I was doing this for any other reason than that I find it beautiful.”
The problem is not that elderliness itself isn’t beautiful; it’s that we aren’t seeing its beauty. We don’t see the dignity, wisdom and strength of endurance that come with growing old. Instead, we see crippled bodies, fading hair, hands knobbed with arthritis. What are we supposed to do to counteract our current disparagement of old age?
We might remind ourselves that the beauty of youth is no more objectively beautiful than the beauty of old age, or that part of what makes our grandparents beloved of us is the wrinkles on their faces and hands. Or maybe we could simply study the paintings of Amy Werntz until we realize that the beauty she lays down on the canvas is just the same as the beauty in the elderly around us. May that recognition of beauty both help us appreciate the older generations of society, and alleviate our fear of becoming that older generation — whether in a month, in 20 years, or even yesterday.
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