Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Age is What You Make It

When I'm 94, I want to be as cool as Willie Anne Wright.

Back before I left for Dubrovnik, I'd been invited to a Candela Gallery luncheon for the painter-turned-photographer and even though I knew this week would be crazy busy getting back into the work flow, I'd accepted for fear I may not get another invitation to meet a talented, working nonagenarian.

I'd seen her new exhibit as part of the group show "Channels" at September's First Friday opening and been wildly impressed with her photograms combining a vintage set of tarot cards (it didn't hurt that I'd been to a tarot card reading in May) and Brugmansia flowers from her garden.

Although I was among the first to arrive, a fact attributable to Candela being a five-block walk while most people had to find parking, the galleries soon filled up with a who's who of local gallerists and curators, including Seth Feman, curator of exhibitions at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk.

When I spotted the manager of Quirk Gallery, my first question was where he'd been at the Artsies, since I hadn't seen him but knew he had to be there since his actress wife was not only up for an award, but a presenter. "Up in the balcony, away from it all," he joked before we began reminiscing about how much saner the awards program has become compared to its early years as an alcohol-fueled four-hour extravaganza.

Where gallery people gather, there's always talk of installing and de-installing shows.The director of 1708 was lamenting how short she and her staff are - all under 5'5" - when it comes to mounting and taking down exhibits, leading to a discussion of how short people manage at music shows. I shared that my favorite place at the National is at the apex of the floor, directly in front of the sound board.

"I'm so short, I just find a tall person and stand directly in front of them," one woman said. Another admitted to passive-aggressively giving tall people who stood in front of her "the look" until they got the hint and moved.

Eventually, Candela's owner Gordon herded us to the tables for lunch - sandwiches, a green salad and fruit salad from Lift Cafe next door - so we could hear what Willie Anne had to share about her latest work. I made sure to take a seat facing where she sat, eager to learn from my elder.

"Willie Anne and I have known each other for 25 or 30 years," Gordon began before Willie Anne piped up, saying, "I'm only 35!" And while it was a joke, everyone agreed she looked and acted far younger than her years.

He told us how she'd begun as a painter and only taken a photography class so she could document her paintings. "She's going to talk as long as she likes and I'll sit here happily," Gordon concluded. He wasn't the only one.

Explaining that she'd been given the deck of Pamela Coleman Smith-designed tarot cards in 1970, she gestured to the man on her right, saying that he'd been the one to give them to her. "1966," he corrected her and she smiled, looking surprised.

"My kids were into being hippies and I rolled my eyes and said, far out!" she recalled, before admitting that it wasn't until she was given Brugmansia plants, which are known for their mystic qualities, that the mystic Art Deco-inspired tarot cards from 1909 inspired her to combine the 22 major arcana of the deck with the blooms.

Holding up several plastic sleeves of pressed Brugmansia flowers, she explained that she exposed them directly to the sun using conventional darkroom paper. "So they should be black and white images," Gordon interjected, but as anyone could see by the images on the wall, they were instead rendered in shades of pumpkin and raisin.

"Okay, that's the way I did it!" she announced cheerfully, before going on to explain that she intentionally arranged the pendulous flowers the way they grew, trumpets down. This she pointed out on one of the prints where a figure with a horn mirrored the angle of the flower next to it, pointing down.

Looking around at her finished pieces framed and hanging on the walls, Willie Anne observed, "I'd never seen these arranged in sequence. Looking at them I saw that it works. Maybe I got something here!"

Never was self-deprecation so charming.

Someone asked her how long it took to get the images and she said it ranged from half an hour to three hours, depending on how strong and constant the sun was, admitting that she often went on to do something else while they sat on her front porch. "It's not the most efficient way to work, but it works for me."

Who doesn't have their own peculiar way of doing things?

Her enthusiasm for her work was evident and her self-effacing demeanor made her even more of an artistic champion. "I wish you could all come to my backyard and see my Brugmansia. They're all in bloom!"

You better believe I'll still be crowing about my moonflowers when I'm 94. Now whether or not I'll still be cranking out blog posts remains to be seen, but I expect I'll still have plenty to say.

The challenge may be finding people who'll sit happily while I talk as long as I want. Willie Anne is my hero.

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