One day the most extraordinary email appeared in my inbox from Marie Lyon, an 88-year-old artist from Prince Edward Island in Canada.
She mentioned that she’d started her university art degree at age 53, which intrigued me, and that she’d traveled widely taking art workshops. I replied with a few questions.
What followed was an epistolary memoir sent via iPad from a woman in her 80s who enthusiastically embraces art, technology, and what the future may bring. I was awed, amazed, and inspired, and vowed anew to embrace the adventure of Later Blooming.
Marie gave me permission to share her story with you. What follows is a lightly-edited, reorganized cut-and-paste from her emails, right down to the opening epithet, which she provided.
I know you will love Marie’s story as much as I do!
The Creative Adventures of a French Farm Girl from Prince Edward Island
“I’m a child who is getting on.”
I’ve had a very interesting life for a French farm girl from Prince Edward Island, marrying an Air Force pilot who eventually went to Yale Law School, raising four children, then attending university in fine arts when I was 53.
Now I am 88 and still active in art groups and exhibitions. It’s a great antidote to feeling old. Last year I attended workshops that took me to New York, Massachusetts, and Tuscany. I’ve traveled to every continent except Australia—not bad for a little French farm girl who attended a two-room school until grade 10!
I plan to give you the whole shebang and let you pick and choose what you think would make interesting reads.
“Tell Mom I Just Got Married”
When I finished high school, I thought I would like to be a librarian. But my mother said that if I took the two-year commerce course at Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown, I would have no trouble finding a job as a bilingual secretary.
My husband was receiving challenging offers as a law professor, so we lived in different cities across Canada. With each move, I was able to find work easily. I worked for bank managers, lawyers, an advertising firm, and Reader’s Digest.
Mother was right. She had been a bookkeeper in Ipswich, Massachusetts and loved office work. After all these years I can still read and write Pitman Shorthand.
My husband and I have been married for 67 years. We eloped and after the “ceremony,” I phoned my sister because my mother didn’t have a phone. I told her that I just got married and for her to tell Mom the next time she saw her.
“Got any other jokes?” she said.
“No, it’s for real,” I said.
Then she asked, “Would you mind telling me who you married?”
I answered “His name is Noel Lyon and he got his flying wings today. We leave tomorrow for Trenton, Ontario air force base. Tell Mom he’s the one I brought home for a weekend last fall. She’ll remember. You didn’t meet him.”
“Okay, if you say so,” she replied.
And that was the beginning of my adventurous life! Fifty-eight years later we came back as the residents of my mother’s house, and now we have a phone. It’s been a real turn-around, and my sister finally got to meet Noel.
Noel won a scholarship to do a masters of law at Yale in New Haven. We were living in Vancouver and had four kids, ages 5, 7, 9 and 12. Noel had graduated three years before, and we were far from well-off. We took our nine-year-old Studebaker and a two-room tent and off we went.
We stayed in student housing and enrolled our kids in the blacks’ school. We had a choice but felt that it would be beneficial for them to mix with a different class than the only one they had encountered up to then. It was a good choice.
Two of the wives in the student housing apartments invited me to spend a day with them in New York City. We went to the recently opened [in 1959] Guggenheim Museum where there was an exhibition of the Abstract Expressionists—Rothko, Pollock, and Motherwell were hanging.
This was all new to me, and I blurted out, “My kids could do that.”
The parents of one of my companions were friends of Alexander Calder [American sculptor known for originating the mobile] but she just accepted me as the hayseed I was.
After the school year in New Haven and a visit to my mother in Prince Edward Island, we “tented” our way back to Vancouver.
Falling Cherries and Other Epiphanies
In the fall, a friend invited me to take an art class with her at the University of British Columbia, so I went along. The teacher’s first exercise was to paint a cherry falling at night in the forest. I thought, “Why, that’s impossible!” and did nothing.
One of the students produced a painting of irregular vertical dark marks with a red streak down the centre. “THAT’S IT!” I said and saw what abstract art was about. I never looked back.
The Abstract Expressionists became my favorites, and I have since enjoyed them in gallery visits from San Diego to Boston.
Twenty years later [at age 53] I took Fine Arts at Queen’s University and felt quite ashamed at my ignorance. I discovered that my kids weren’t as clever as I had given them credit for!
One summer my husband went to Sri Lanka as a visiting professor, and I joined him. UNICEF invited me to go on a photo op trip in the boondocks where there were primitive houses and few roads.
The project was to publish a book on encouraging mothers to play with their children. I found the children knew how to play with whatever they found—a rope, a stick. And the mothers had big welcoming smiles on their faces.
When I look back at that trip, I am reminded that those children didn’t have tricycles, Lego sets, iPhones, or anything modern for toys, yet they were having a lot of healthy fun with friends, using their imagination for making playthings. That night we stayed in a motel at Tissa Wewa.
My room had a small outside sitting area where I went after supper to watch hundreds of monkeys playing in a nearby field. Many of them were mothers grooming their young. What a great day that was!
In 1986, Noel and I spent a year in Cambridge, England. We didn’t have a car so we purchased two bicycles. I hadn’t been on a bicycle since I was thirteen and had had an encounter on a downward slope with a ditch. I had to be taken to the doctor to get the stones removed from my knees.
After that, I wasn’t tempted to ride one until Noel bought me one in Cambridge. Then my choice was to ride along or run behind him. So, by the end of the year, I was a well-seasoned brave cyclist.
Mimi, a friend from Ontario, came for a visit and Noel rented a bike for her. We registered for a printing workshop for just the two of us in Tilney All Saints, about an hour’s train ride to the north of Cambridge.
We put our bikes in the cargo area of the train and stayed with them to Kings Lynn, the nearest town to Tilney that had a bed and breakfast.
We rode our bikes to the printer’s studio which was a good couple of miles on the A17. It was a bit scary at first, but we got used to it. We would ride back to the pub for lunch, then return for the afternoon session.
We were getting private tutoring from a master and a lot of exercise and fun to boot. It was a memorable adventure!
Tuscany and The Cat Who Came in from the Cold
In the summer of 2016, Noel and I journeyed to a villa in Tuscany and enjoyed a five-day workshop from Elizabeth St. Hilaire on paper collage. We went on exciting trips in the afternoons and even got hands-on pasta making and ate it for lunch. It was a “to die for” week, one of the best adventures we have had.
It’s rather a nice story about why we chose to travel there. In Summerside, I would visit an interesting lady who was in her mid-nineties.
One winter night she had opened her back door and in walked a little cat. “Oh, you poor babe, come on in,” and Babe was immediately adopted and given the run of the house.
One day when I was visiting her, she mentioned that she should get her chesterfield re-upholstered as Babe had adopted it as his scratching post. I told her that I would fix it for her.
I took a photo of Babe and painted a patch of the cat on a piece of fabric that was close to the color of her sofa. I sewed it on the arm, and she was delighted.
I wrote a story about her as a little girl, sitting in bed and looking at the fabrics of the crazy quilt on her bed. I made up stories about many of the pieces, whose clothing they came from, and a little girl’s memories associated with them.
I also collaged a lampshade for her that she proudly displayed in her living room. She died about three years ago, and the lamp and story were returned to me, along with a sizeable cheque. I didn’t know she had money.
I had thought of spending it on a skylight for the studio, then decided that was too practical, that my donor would wish me to do something creative as she loved to travel.
Voilà—a workshop with Elizabeth St. Hilaire whom I had admired for years. At the Villa supper one evening, I shared with the painting group how a cat named Babe had financed our trip to Italy.
Fifteen months ago, one of our daughters and I drove to Gloucester, Massachusetts and took another five-day workshop from Patti Mollica. I’m not a very good student. I have attitude. But I manage to get a bit of something from each instructor.
I learn more from taking risks and ideating on the impossible.
Alone in San Miguel de Allende
You asked where I studied art. I took a four-year degree at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario where we did painting, printmaking, sculpture, art history and more—a well-rounded preparation for the art world.
After art school, bringing up four children (four in seven years), and working so my husband could get a law degree, I didn’t know who I really was (by then I was 60).
My Spanish professor, who had accompanied us to Bogota, told me about San Miguel de Allende. He had taught there and said I would really like that old city.
I had travelled quite a bit by then, but Noel always made the arrangements or I was with a group. This time I was going to do it myself and find out who I really was.
This was 1989, before the internet, so what info I had available was in the public library. I found Posada de Las Monjas (guesthouse of the nuns) near the centre of town and sent them a deposit in October.
My plan was to leave in early January from New Orleans where Noel would be attending an American Law Meeting. I enjoyed being a tourist in New Orleans and then it was time to depart for Mexico.
At the airport, I came close to returning to Canada with Noel, but I braved the fear of being alone and took the flight south of the border. When I got to the Posada they had never heard of me.
Luckily, there was the perfect room available for me. My deposit didn’t arrive until the end of January. So much for snail mail. I stayed there for three months and returned for the next four years.
Those four years I stayed in an apartment by the Jardin, the central park. I made friends, took many courses, perfected my Spanish, and became much more confident. Noel says it’s the best things I did with my life. (So much for having married him.)
I could write a book about my Mexican adventure (I have a stack of written journals from those years) but I am a procrastinator and before I know it, it will be too late.
Children’s Book, Tattoo, and Life on a Lobster Boat
In 2008 I wrote a children’s book I Like Apples—see on Amazon.ca—and in 2009, at age 80, was interviewed in French on CBC TV Moncton because of my art, my book, and my age. The following year I was interviewed again on a morning radio program. Fifteen minutes of fame!
I do something different that I’ve never heard of any other artist doing. I collage empty stained teabags that have been dried. They have interesting stains, and I use these as substrates to collage canvases into divisions.
Then I paint little scenes on them like storylines. The viewer makes up his/her own stories. They are popular. I also do mixed media, mostly acrylics. I have a head full of ideas and am impressed with Wabi Sabi.
Two years ago, I designed a tattoo of our recently deceased kitties who died of old age after much cross-country travel from Saskatoon to Prince Edward Island each summer for ten years.
They stayed in hotels with us in Chicago, Boston, and on the 22nd floor of the Novotel near Times Square, where they spent their days watching yellow cabs whizzing by and probably thought they were little bugs.
I got them placed on my arm so they would face me and wouldn’t feel so “isolated.” We now have two others who are also “precious.”
A few years ago, my nephew-in-law gave me a 35-foot retired lobster boat as he was getting a newer model. The farm is four miles from water so we put it in the backyard, next to potato fields. It is now my summer art studio, about fifty feet from the farm back door.
In mid-afternoon, on nice days Noel brings me tea and cookies on the deck. Noel turned 88 this week (he’s ten months younger than me), and he’s still teaching three semesters a year at the local Senior College. He has his disciples who take anything he “dishes out.”
Last term he did “Women Artists” and this term it’s “The Legacy of Leonard Cohen.” Lots of Internet and book research keeps him out of trouble.
He played hockey until he was 86-years-old and quit because some of the players were in their early thirties and fast players.
The other night I reread, for the third time, Gratitude by Oliver Sacks. Such a positive book. I really identify with his words: “At eighty, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age.”
He died of cancer at age 82. I am going to be 89 in March and am still in good health after two surgeries, for colon and breast cancer.
My New Year resolution is to draw every day.
Also to take naps without guilt. I once read that when in a horizontal position the brain gets fed more blood and is, therefore, more awake to ideas. I told that to my family, and now, when they see me taking a nap, they remark “She’s ideating.”
By now, you know enough about me to write the newsletter, and I am so enjoying reminiscing about all my adventures and activities that I am going to go ideate.