The art of aging well

Published on March 4, 2011

In the movie “The First Wives Club,” actor Goldie Hawn famously defined the three roles for women in Hollywood film: babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy. Actors like Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren and Annette Benning are fighting that, with all the ammunition their fierce talent and ever-fine looks can supply, but the popular image of a woman-of-a-certain-age remains fairly restricted. The process of aging must be defied, denied, resisted at all costs. No one wants to get older. And certainly no one wants to appear older.

Tina Dolter would like to take another look at this picture. In fact, the visual artist would like us to take a good fresh look at a dozen paintings, all of women over 40 (their ages are boldly part of the titles). These women are not withdrawing, effaced by the years. Not for them the hiding behind clichés of kitty cats and dowdiness. Instead they are poised, frank and alluring.

“The theme stemmed from some research I was doing on the power of the feminine,” Dolter said at the Christina Parker Gallery a few days before the opening of her show, “Celebrating the Fine Art of Aging Well.” As the title suggests, the mood of the works is of delight and enjoyment. Dolter has been thinking about the topic since she was completing her BFA at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College. Co-incidentally, she became involved with a calendar project, raising funds for the palliative care unit at the Western Memorial Regional Hospital in Corner Brook. Like the original calendar girls of the Yorkshire Women’s Institute in England, it featured ordinary women posing nude for charity.

“Just being in the room with all these women, all over 40, who were taking their clothes off to raise money in the memory of a friend who had died without palliative care, it really spoke to me,” said Dolter. “Something went ‘ping’ in my mind.”

Dolter then painted three like-minded portraits of women in Corner Brook. They were sensual, and also powerful.

“These women had an aura, they were approachable, they were self-assured and comfortable in their own skin.” Displaying those paintings quickly led to requests from women on this side of the island, who wanted to pose, and be painted, in the same way.

Many of these women are significant names in the cultural scene — Bernice Morgan, Elaine Dobbin, Berni Stapleton, Kathleen Knowling, Janice Wells. “They all had this certain something I was looking for,” said Dolter. She would discuss the composition of each piece with the model. Most were painted in their own homes, and selected special garments and jewelry. The backgrounds are full of rich, lush details, like a vase of flowers or tactile blue cloth. Some hold props like a pretty china cup or glass of wine. Some are fully clothed, some let a sheer black wrap slip off one shoulder, others go further. Dolter was respectful of each women’s comfort level. “Sensuality is not about exposing your body. It was a real collaboration. They trusted me. We shared common ground, commonality as women.”

That consideration was embedded in the four- or five-hour sittings, as were a lot of confidential exchanges, self-awareness and fun. Stapleton’s piece, for example, Dolter pointed out, is titled “Channelling Miss

Dietrich.” In setting and tone it harkens back to a time when dames were dames. “She wanted to go back to those old sirens. She really took this on, and immersed herself in part.”

Each piece is individual and specific, with a strapless dress here, a necklace there, a pair of long white gloves over there. All the women are painted so their forthright and lively gaze meets the viewer’s. This comes from a trait all the models share: they are game.

“They love life,” said Dolter. “And sexuality is part of life. Our culture is changing. We’re living longer, and we’re living healthier longer. These women have a good attitude about their bodies. Your body now is not your body when you were 20, and that’s OK. This sensuality is about knowing what you need, and knowing what you have to give.”

“Celebrating the Fine Art of Aging Well” continues at the Christina Parker Gallery until March 25. In June, Dolter brings her project to the Propeller Centre for the Visual Arts on Queen Street West in Toronto.