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  • Folk Art and Aging: Life-Story Objects and Their Makers by Jon Kay
  • Kathleen Mundell
Folk Art and Aging: Life-Story Objects and Their Makers. By Jon Kay. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016. Pp. xii + 131, 41 color photographs, acknowledgments, introduction, conclusion, bibliography.)

Folk Art and Aging is a remarkable study of aging and the creative process. Featuring portraits of five elderly Indiana folk artists—woodcarver Bob Taylor, painter Gustav Potthoff, rug maker Marian Sykes, walking stick maker John Schoolman, and instrument maker Milan Opacich—the book explores how these artists draw on their experiences to create what Kay calls “life-story objects” and how their creative practice brings about a renewed sense of purpose and connection. Defining life-story objects as “works specifically crafted to assist in the structuring and telling of life experiences” (p. 6), Kay demonstrates how such works provide, for their makers, occasions for social engagement and strengthen connections to community and family life.

Being cast in this generative role is one of the gifts of growing older, allowing these artists a chance to sort through their experiences and share what they have discovered with others. For example, Bob Taylor, a retired pattern-maker, explores his life experiences through beautifully crafted and intricate woodcarvings. He makes his world available to others by demonstrating and telling stories about his work and life at woodcarving shows, county fairs, and senior centers. In doing so, Taylor has created a new identity in retirement as well as expanded his social network, both important factors in healthy aging. Another artist, Gustav Potthoff, creates paintings of “remembrance, narration, and commemoration” (p. 30) depicting his internment in the death camps of Burma and Thailand during World War II. Potthoff ’s work is an example of what Kay describes as “a kind of folk art that is deeply social and rooted in community—both the community he forged with his fellow laborers in the prison camps, but also a contemporary community of veterans, museumgoers, and friends for whom he creates and shares his art” (p. 30).

Such in-depth portraits are hard to come by in studies of aging. Offering the reader a different way of thinking about the aging process, Folk Art and Aging is a welcome shift from the medical model’s emphasis on illness and physical and mental decline. The book’s ethnographic approach affirms what folklorists have known for a long time: that creativity is a thread that runs through life in all kinds of circumstances and that older people are both creators and active keepers of traditional culture. Folk Art and Aging references previous innovative work in the field of creativity and aging by such folklorists as Simon Bronner, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Mary Hufford, Marjorie Hunt, and Steven Zeitlin. Kay also cites the work of Dr. Gene Cohen, a geriatric psychiatrist whose research points to the positive impact that creativity has on older adults’ physical, mental, and emotional health. Cohen coined the term “creative aging” to describe how creativity in all its multifaceted forms, including folk art, furthers the aging brain’s ability to change and form new connections.

Folk Art and Aging will prove to be a valuable resource as interest in the idea of creative aging becomes more widespread. Still, in the current creative aging field, the definition of art remains narrowly focused on professional teaching artists delivering art instruction to older adults. Such an approach overlooks the potential for older adults to tap into their own lives and cultural traditions as a creative source. As Kay points out, quoting Alan Jabbour, “folk arts mean fundamentally drawing out special forms of expression people already possess, not laying on arts, forms, or programs they lack” (p. 24).

The beauty in this book is Kay’s in-depth attention to these “special forms of expression.” Kay’s capturing of these artists’ deeply personal reworkings of their life experiences is an invitation to enter their worlds. For example, Marian Sykes, a talented hooked rug maker and daughter [End Page 222] of Sicilian immigrants from Chicago, applies her creativity in new and meaningful ways, asking deeper questions about her life and up-bringing. As Kay describes it, “just as...


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pp. 222-223
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