"Sketches From a Life"
By Anne Little
Chicago Tribune Thursday, March 27, 1997
Conversing with 93-year-old artist Hilda Gorenstein can be a little perplexing. Sometimes her answers don't quite track:
"Do you want to use a big brush on this big piece of paper?"
"You can if you want to."
She makes up words, sometimes paints them and lets them evolve into other words.
"Nankin, kin, king, ring, rich, rings."
She puts words into ditties:
"Duh, duh, duh, do, do, do - do what you wan to do. That's the thing to do."
Or, she drops her head and takes a nap.
But with her sketchbook and watercolors before her, Gorenstein undergoes a metamorphosis. Speech is forgotten. Her face lights up with vitality, and her eyes flash comprehension and intensity.
Images convey her messages. If she feels uneasy or agitated, the images are turbulent, disorderly. If she is happy, they are placid and serene.
Gorenstein, who graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1930's, has produced more than 1,500 artworks in about 70 years, said her daughter, Berna Huebner, who lives in Paris. They include paintings in oil and acrylic, watercolors, drawings and sculpture. Her art has been exhibited in cities across the country and is part of private collections in the U.S. and at least seven foreign countries, including England, France and Sweden.
Gorenstein, however, has suffered progressive memory loss over the past decade. As her memory failed, she almost stopped painting and retreated into herself, Huebner said.
About ten years ago, when Huebner was visiting her mother, who lives in a nursing home in Chicago's North Side, she asked Gorenstein if she wanted to paint.
Gorenstein replied: "I remember better when I paint."
Huebner, who had been sending her mother postcards in hopes of encouraging her to copy them, discussed her mother's response with Gorenstein's physician, Dr. Lawrence Lazarus, a geriatric psychiatrist at Rush Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center. He suggested that Huebner contact the School of the Art Institute.
She did, and part-time jobs for students to help Gorenstein paint were posted on the School's bulletin board. Now three students - Jenny Sheppard and Jane Benson, both graduate students, and Tim Daly, a junior - and studio artist Robin Barcus, who is a 1993 graduate of the school, work with Gorenstein daily, sometimes individually and sometimes in pairs.
They sit on either side of her wheelchair, dip brushes into paints and hand the brushes to Gorenstein, who now works only in watercolor. Although Gorenstein's hands are misshapen by arthritis, her grasp is firm and her brush strokes resolute. She sometimes rises from her wheelchair as if to view her picture from a different perspective.
"During our best sessions, there is a non-verbal communication that flows between us," Barcus said. "It feels like I feel myself when I have a good day painting in my studio. It is as if I am her arm when I mix the paint and dip my brush in it."
Gorenstein, like many elderly patients, has some days that are better than others. Barcus said it took her several weeks to develop a rhythm and read Gorenstein's body language.
"Sometimes she doesn't feel like painting, and we don't paint at all. We take a walk or write or take outings to the Art Institute," Barcus said. "Some days she needs more prompting [to paint], but sometimes all I need to do is paint a circle to get her started.
"But the very best days are when it's really her work, and the work is flowing from her. It provides and outlet [for expression] that gives her life meaning."
Barcus added that when Gorenstein seemed agitated, painting had a calming effect on her. Sheppard noted that Gorenstein's painting functions as art therapy.
Gorenstein is conscious of her loss of memory, and "she is [projecting] her experience in her artwork," Sheppard said. "Her articulation becomes clearer through her art. Nevertheless, it is obvious how hard she has to work," Sheppard said.
For All To See
Although Gorenstein's images have become simpler as her illness has progressed, she is having her fourth exhibition since resuming her painting. Several of her watercolors are on display through Saturday at the Plum Line Gallery, 1503 Chicago Ave., Evanston.
Gorenstein's watercolors are being shown in conjunction with "Drawings from the Hilda Series," a number of blind contour portraits of Gorenstein by Barcus, who works part time at the gallery. (Blind contour is a technique in which the artist looks at the subject but not at the paper on which he or she is drawing.) Barcus did the portraits during Gorenstein's naps.
Working with other artists "helps stimulate Hilda. She responds to other artists," said Plum line owner Jane Chapman. "Robin wanted Hilda to have her work seen."
Gorenstein has had three other exhibitions at the nursing home where she lives and one at the School of the Art Institute. An exhibition of her watercolors and artworks by Sheppard, which include videos of Gorenstein and her recorded conversations with her, is planned for a May 7 opening at the School of the Art Institute.
Lazarus believes that reviving the artistic talents that elderly people had developed earlier increases self-esteem. "Art brings out attributes that are still intact - like a sense of color," he said.
In fact, Gorenstein once remarked after painting a series of spirals with Sheppard, "See how I have the power ... power over my own history."
A Lifetime of Painting
The therapeutic effects of art are not limited to the graphic arts," he said, adding, "Music and dance are other skills that are often retained when there are other impairments."
Work in the arts can put elderly people in touch with a time in life they remember. "The older memories that were planted when we were younger remain unimpaired."
Gorenstein started painting seascapes while in her teens. The U.S. department of the Navy commissioned her to paint "The History of the Navy," a series of 6 panels that were displayed at the Chicago's Century of Progress celebration in 1933.
Her love of water scenes is reflected in the titles of some of her works: "The Storm," "The Blue River," "Fishing," "Three Boats," "The Coast."
Huebner estimates that over the years her mother has produced an average of 20 artworks a year. In a day when women artists weren't highly regarded, she signed her work "Hilgos," which could denote either sex.
In her heyday, Gorenstein knew artists Georgia O'Keefe and Ivan Albright. While visiting the Art Institute of Chicago recently, she stopped before a photograph of Albright and exclaimed, "Oh, Ivan!"
Gorenstein's recent work with the younger artists is an example of "artists meeting on another plane and communicating in ways that circumvent her illness," said Carol Becker, dean of faculty at the School of the Art Institute. "She has made a bond with them in another arena: creative space.
"I feel she has slipped way back into herself. But she can express herself through her work. That is the bare bones of defining being."
-- Anne Little, Chicago Tribune