“Grow Old Along With Me. . .”
What the older artists of Germany have to teach us about creating long lives full of passion
Wally Warning, 69, is one of Munich’s most popular singer/songwriters. A native of Aruba, his high octane concerts of Caribbean soul and Reggae are regularly sold out. Yet, a year ago he was paralyzed from the neck down with the rare disease GBS (Guillain-Barré syndrome). Today, he is back performing, a bit slower, but with a renewed sense of purpose.
I am seeing things in life with my music that are much better. Things like the lyrics in the song I did it on my first album, Promises. . . The first version is nice, you dance, you're having a good time, but the lyrics don't go deeply enough into you. But, the second version, you don't dance, the lyrics go deep and it lives longer and it gives people pause, gives people hope. I'm thankful for my age because I see things much clearer that I didn't see when I was twenty.
What is the wisdom of aging? Do older artists age differently from the rest of the population? These are the questions American researcher and artist, Stuart Kandell, asked in his study of Germany’s older artists. Sponsored by a Fulbright grant, Kandell, 68, spent two months in Germany last fall. He interviewed 23 artists from ages 60-83 and watched them work and rehearse. The artists ranged from painters, sculptors, blues singers, musicians, actors, directors, dancers and writers. Most had practiced art throughout their lives and some rekindled a youthful interest in retirement. Kandell’s survey is part of a world-wide study he is doing on the impact of arts participation in the lives of older adults and their communities. Does practicing art help older adults deal with illness, feel less isolated, have greater meaning and purpose in their lives, and provide opportunity to give back to other generations? The German artists are very articulate about the way art helps them see their aging in a different way.
Erica Fischer, 74, has been a journalist, novelist and ardent feminist all her life. Born in Vienna, she considers Berlin “home.” With the success of “Aimee and Jaguar” in 1995, she continues writing and translating full time.
With age, one becomes more relaxed. . . I am no longer a victim of sexual harassment and this is extremely liberating. I go to my fitness club and I wear my old trousers and tee shirt and am surrounded by muscular men and I couldn't care less. . . When you are fifty it is painful not to be seen. But then, not to be seen is also an advantage. You can be yourself. But I still wish to be seen as a writer. Very important. I have this sense of great freedom.
Julia Scarlet Lindig, 63, has been acting since childhood in Cologne. She then toured the world at 17, and went on to perform on stage, in television and films. With her move to Berlin she began doing puppet shows and today works with poor communities around the world.
When art is in your life, art talks to you. . . when you wake up, when you have time, when you are relaxed and think of something else, art says ‘Would you write this down?’ ‘Would you do this?’ In the younger years, it is a lot of self consciousness: are you good enough, are you pretty enough, are you this and that. This affects a lot of your brain and heart work. . . What I do now: if no one looks, it's ok. If no one talks about it, it's ok. . . I just need the time and this makes me completely really happy.
Matthias Koeppel celebrated his 80th birthday with his wife Sooki at a retrospective exhibit in Berlin, where he has lived since the War. He is one of Germany’s foremost painters.
There are some advantages that you have over younger people. . . Suddenly elements come in that I couldn't have predicted. I would have said ‘That's cool, but it has to go away because it doesn't belong in this picture.’ Today, as a wise old man, I would say ‘That's wonderful, let it stay there.’ It doesn't matter what the people say about it. And this conflict happens only between me and the picture. People realize nothing. Then they say ‘Maybe the old guy is getting a little relaxed in his old age.’
What distinguishes these artists from many other people their age is their passion for life. Percussionist Tividar Nemisi, 61, says it best: “Creativity and joy in life keeps you going. You can make music until you fall over.” And when these artists do “fall over” and deal with serious health challenges, they get up faster. When Wally Warning was paralyzed in the hospital, he wrote a song and had the orderly write the lyrics. While actor Johannes Storks, 63, recovered from a heart attack, he couldn’t wait to perform. “It's like a therapy to get the applause. To feel that I am still alive.”
The fact that most of the artists grew up in the post war, a time of enormous poverty, challenge and change, yet chose a path of art --- says a lot about power of German culture and the individual strength of people to chose “the road less traveled.”
Others waited until they were near retirement to pursue a new career in the arts. Nikolas Strathenwerth, 64, began dancing tango in his fifties, “in the third part of my life.” Ron Bird, 76, a sailor who started his singing career in his fifties says "The hardest part is throwing off the lines. It's not the sailing, it's just getting started.”
These artists are living examples of the power of arts in navigating the waters of old age with grace, passion, connection, and meaning.
Stuart Kandell, Ph.D.
This article was written for the German magazine Kubia Spring 2018