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Five Questions for Damon McCleese

Damon McCleese is the Executive Director of Access Gallery on Santa Fe which helps those with disabilities explore the creative process. He is also the curator of an art exhibit called 70 Something which runs from January 20 through February 26 at Niza Knoll Gallery at 915 Santa Fe. The exhibit showcases the work of artists who are in their 70s, 80s, even 90s, including Niza Knoll, who is 80 years old. He answered our five questions.

What was the inspiration for your 70 something Exhibit and what do you want people to take away from it?

My mother passed away in 2015. She was 90 years old and had fallen and broken her hip. She lived the last six months of her life in a nursing home with her only creative outlet being a children’s coloring book. This really bothered me. I did what I always do, I threw myself into something I knew nothing about. I started teaching people with Alzheimer’s and dementia to do graffiti. I had no idea this reaction to my own grief would lead me to challenge my own assumptions about aging and creativity. I have since also turned 60 and realized that I am in a unique position to maybe do something where someone else’s mother in a nursing home may have a different experience than my mother did. Since then, I have learned a lot about how older brains process creativity. I find artists who are older still working are extraordinarily engaging.  I hope people will see these artists who have expressed a lifetime of ideas and craft into some remarkable work. I wanted to really focus on contemporary artists and am thrilled with this show.

You talk about combating ageism through art. How does ageism reveal itself in the art world?

Much like our entire society the art world is always looking towards the young, the up and comer, what is new and fresh. I am more drawn to experience and how artists who have navigated a longer time on this earth process the world. I first was aware of an artists ability to adapt to changing mental and physical aspects of themselves when I saw an exhibit of Matisse cut outs. He could no longer manage the brushes the way he used to. Or Miles Davis who took up painting after a stroke. There are countless examples of this. But I am also drawn to the idea that we are all creative and many people revisit their creativity later in life. Most of the artists in this show have been practicing art for decades and the work is stunning. I say let’s celebrate this not try to hide it. 

The elderly are often portrayed as washed up, over the hill, put out to pasture, but you believe they’re bursting with creativity. Can you explain that?

There was a famous study by NASA that showed 90% of six year old’s test as creative geniuses but by the time we are adults less than 10% of us test as creative geniuses. I say this is more to do with our education system confusing creativity with conformity. By the time we reach a certain age there are a good number of people who return to their creative interest, and as I learned in the Granny does graffiti project, most older people are open to trying new things and are very interested in communal creativity and are able to better use both sides of the brain when they create than their younger counterparts. Further older people who are engaged in creative outlets take fewer medications, are less likely to fall or experience depression or anxiety – both of which are not part of the normal aging process. We are all creative geniuses. Picasso said it best. “Every child in an artist, the problem is how to remain one as we grow up.” I believe the surest way is to provide as many creative outlets to older adults as we do to children. By the year 2030 there will be more 60 year old’s than six year old’s in this country.

What do you recommend for someone older who is interested in getting into art? 

Just do it. Do something everyday – draw, doodle, take a picture, write a haiku – you do not need anyting fancy just start with what you have handy. I tell people to do something creative every single day – take a photo and write a story about it, draw the same thing every day. I once drew Delicate Arch everyday for a month. I still cannot draw worth a crap but the exercise is about rediscovering your creativity and how you put things together. Remember there is a difference between creativity with artistry. Give yourself permission to play, to explore. Where else in your life are you encouraged to make mistakes?  

What do you say to people who think they are too old to try something new?

Grandma Moses was 77 when she started painting.

The average age of the Rolling Stones is 74 yet their biggest grossing tour was 2019.

Artist Carmen Hererra was 93 when she got her first major show.

John Glenn went to space when he was 77.

Wang Deshun is an 80 year old Chinese male runway model.

Patti Smith is 76 and just published a book of photographs.

Written by

Vicky Collins is a freelance television producer and journalist based in Denver, Colorado with a diverse portfolio of projects that include network news, cable programming, Olympic sports, corporate and non-profit videos. Some of her most satisfying assignments have been covering disasters, working in the slums of developing countries and telling stories of people who show great courage in the face of adversity. She has been in all 50 states and on six continents and many of her television stories and photos are posted on her website at To contact Vicky Collins directly email or tweet @vickycollins.

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