The artists who started a little later in life

You don’t have to be young to create wonderful art. Sarah Lightman meets some late-blossoming talents.


February 18, 2010
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Eddie Bowman “reinvented” himself as an artist after retiring

Eddie Bowman “reinvented” himself as an artist after retiring

'I think that taking up art would be great for anybody at any age," encourages Anneke Raber, 59, a chiropodist, reflexologist and artist. A growing number of people are taking up arts and crafts in middle age and even later - but how easy is it to start at something from scratch when you're not in the first flush? And how good can you become?

Barry Leigh, 61, a former accountant and now a glassmaker in Brighton, felt daunted when he first took up the craft: "When I started I felt humbled by my relative lack of skill." But Debbie Primost, in her 60s, from Hampstead, north London, who makes ceramics and sculptures, adapted quickly. She enthuses: "It enriches my everyday life."

Joining a weekly art class was the springboard for each of these artists. Raber explains how she developed her interests: "I had a home practice as a chiropodist and reflexologist, and because the luxury of an au-pair I had the time to start a course in ceramics." Gradually Raber took more courses including a two-year diploma in history of art which took her on trips to Florence, Paris and Madrid. "This gave me an excellent insight into contemporary art. From there I did an access course in fine art and moved on to do a BA and MA." She remembers she was always comfortable with art, and was regularly taken to art galleries as a child: "I think in pictures. As a child I learned Torah with illustrations of Rembrandt's paintings, and that gave me an idea of what our forefathers might have looked like."

Raber's engagement with art is serious, committed and self-motivated: "It is not an easy route, and I'm always looking and trying to improve. I constantly draw and use objects and images around me to create work. And when an exhibition opportunity arises, I grab it with both hands."

I'm always trying to improve. I constantly draw

Anneke Raber, 59

For a mature artist, success is subjective: "Probably because of my upbringing I find it hard to put myself forward as an 'artist'. This could be the reason why I do not get more support [from my family]. When I used to tell my father about my exhibition, he would ask: 'Was it a success?' I would answer, 'Yes, very.' He would ask: 'How much did you sell?' My answer was: 'Nothing'. He would conclude: 'So it was not a success.'"

Having a chance to take your talents and interests seriously can be liberating and life-enhancing. Leigh also struggled with family support, and this caused him to put his creative ambitions on hold.

"I was told to get a good job - become a professional'. Being a good Jewish boy I did just that, although my sister was allowed to go to art school." He now regrets his early choices. "I went to a school which had no art."

Having qualified as a chartered accountant, Leigh took a variety of courses: "I started to spend time doing courses in painting, sculpture and drawing, and I decided to take it more seriously. I did a foundation course at Eastbourne College of Art and Technology [now South Downs College], and then a degree in printmaking at the University of Brighton. I then completed an MA in fine art at the University of East London."

Now, with his studio and artist community in Brighton, Leigh's life has flourished: "I always felt an alien and outsider in City circles. Now I feel far more part of a community than I ever did as an accountant."

You do not necessarily need formal qualifications. Grandmother of three Debbie Primost has regularly attended classes at the Hampstead Garden Suburb Institute.

"It gives me a creative and social outlet. If I don't go for a while I miss the stimulation and the feeling of creating something." Debbie completed the pre-foundation and foundation course at the institute, but has chosen not to continue with a degree. "There is none of the pressure of being accredited, and I can just really enjoy working with other people from around the world and of different ages."

Art institutions are aware of the different needs and requirements of older students and work to accommodate them. A spokesman from University of the Arts London explains: "Mature students are an important part of our community." Anna Finchas, 59, an artist from Edgware, was accepted at St Albans School of Art on its part-time BA course for mature students. "The course was very well suited to people like me who were taking up art later in life, and I was well nurtured there by some remarkable tutors." Finchas left with a first-class degree.

So what are the benefits and challenges for a mature art student? Eddie Bowman, 79, a photographer and former dentist from Golders Green, has completed two master's degrees in conceptual art at the University of Derby, and in media art and digital imaging at the University of Westminster. He is a regular exhibitor at Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions.

"After retiring as a dentist, I decided to reinvent myself as an artist," he says. He thoroughly enjoyed studying with students in their 20s and 30s: "They treated me as one of the crowd and didn't make me feel any different."

Leigh found other advantages: "Obviously, there are limitations in what I can do physically, but my work is far more mature. One of the problems with young artists is that they haven't the life experiences to relate to. It is these experiences that generate ideas that propel my work."

So is it ever too late to start making and enjoying art? Leigh knows from his own family that age is no barrier: "My mother, who is in her mid-80s, still paints on a daily basis and it is something that one can do without age limit."

try it yourself

Draw: Start small and cheaply, buy a notebook and some pencils and start drawing things around your home, even yourself.

Visit: Go to galleries, some of the best in the country are free. Sketch anything that catches your eye. Hire the headsets to learn more at art shows and displays, and look out for talks and tours that many shows have to accompany the exhibitions.

Take a risk and visit art shows that you might think are not to your liking. Sometimes seeing an artwork in a gallery can change your preconceived ideas.

Read: Look at art reviews, and see the shows they relate to. Do you agree with what is written? Remember, art is subjective and all opinions and interpretations are valid. Get art books out of the library, read up on artists' life stories. Watch how their styles develop over their lives. See how their mature styles reflect their life experiences.

Join: Try an evening class, and keep learning different media and techniques. Find people with whom you can go to art shows and discuss your impressions.

    Last updated: 4:26pm, February 18 2010