As It Happens

Creativity doesn't fade with age — and Emily Urquhart says her father's career proves it

Emily Urquhart says for a long time she assumed her father's abilities as a painter would diminish with age. But what really happened challenged conventional wisdom and her own.

Urquhart's new book explores the work of older artists, including Canadian painter Tony Urquhart

Canadian painter Tony Urquhart with his daughter, Emily Urquhart. (Submitted by Emily Urquhart)

This story was originally published Sep 17, 2020.

Read Story Transcript

There are many books Emily Urquhart could have written about her father's career. 

She might have focused on Tony Urquhart's influence as one of Canada's foremost abstractionists. She could have highlighted his work to establish an artists' union, which helped promote fair pay for creators in the 1960s. Or she could have written about his own fascinating upbringing as the child and grandchild of undertakers. 

Instead, her new book The Age of Creativity is about her father's work at 86 years old — an artist firmly in the what she calls the "third act" of his life. 

"It started because people were commenting on how remarkable he was," Urquhart told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"They would say, 'Wow, he's still making art; he's still being creative. That is remarkable.' And for a long time I thought, 'I guess that's remarkable.'" 

But then she started contemplating her father's work more carefully, and realized she'd made a mistake. 

"Maybe it's not remarkable. Maybe it's actually normal." 

The painting that started it all

Urquhart says her reckoning with creativity and aging began when she and her father took a trip to the Art Gallery of Ontario together. 

The painter took her to a room of post-war Canadian art and asked her to identify the paintings there. She says it was a familiar game, but there was one image she just couldn't place. 

"It turned out that was the painting The Earth Returns to Life. It was his." 

Tony Urquhart painted The Earth Returns to Life as a young man in 1958. (Submitted by Emily Urquhart)

She didn't recognize it, she says, partly because it wasn't his best work — something the artist himself was quick to acknowledge. 

"He was really critical of it," she recalled, and he said it paled in comparison to his more recent work. 

She agreed. 

"It was interesting that he was making better work now — in his 80s — than he was in his 20s. And that seemed to be the opposite of conventional thought." 

Common ideas about aging aren't aging well 

This realization set off a months-long exploration of aging and creativity, during which the writer read deeply — and interviewed aging artists ranging from New Yorker illustrator Bruce McCall to Shakespearean actor Martha Henry. 

Urquhart says her study made one thing very clear. The way we tend to think about creativity is fundamentally flawed. 

"A lot of the studies that were done on creativity are quite outdated," she said. "They look at creativity as a product as opposed to an act. 'Create' is a verb. And it's not something you can quantify." 

She says this realization helped her understand the transformation that was happening in her father's work. 

"His creativity didn't waver," Urquhart said. "He continued to make art and sometimes it had to change because his body was changing, but it didn't mean that he was a different person. And it didn't mean he wasn't an artist." 

Unable to travel as he once did, Tony Urquhart now finds inspiration outside his own window. (Submitted by Emily Urquhart)

She says this is no less true now, despite her father's diagnosis of dementia in his 80s. 

"He has been painting and drawing his whole life and so it's kind of a well-worn pathway — this sort of innate memory — that hasn't diminished," she said.

"He doesn't forget how to make art. He doesn't forget how to draw. And he doesn't get any less joy out of it either." 

Her father's work is far from the only example she cites. Claude Monet's famed Water Lilies series was among his last. And Inuit artist Elisapee Ishulutaq's techniques became boldly experimental in her final years, she said. 

Urquhart is quick to point out, however, that such late-life creative flourishings are often met with skepticism and even disparagement. Here, she references lauded abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, whose work evolved substantially after an Alzheimer's diagnosis. 

"[Those paintings] were valued as lesser within the art world and within the art market. And that continues today. And people have been quite cruel. Critics saying, 'Well, who would pay that sum of money for paintings that are done by an artist clearly working with one cylinder?'" 

She says ageism is at work, but also ableism. 

"It seems that people can't accept art that's done by somebody who happens to have a disability." 

Emily Urquhart watches her father at work in his printmaking studio in the 1980s. (Submitted by Emily Urquhart)

Possibilities for change

With her father unable to travel as he once did, Urquhart says the pair was keen to make at least one final trip to their beloved New York City together. 

The visit would prove to be illuminating. 

While there, they attended an art opening at the Carter Burden Gallery, a unique space that only exhibits work by artists over the age of 60. 

"Maybe they've been working their whole lives and they haven't managed to get a break yet," she said. "And now they're older and the doors are closing … because of the ageism in the art industry." 

She says spaces like that give her hope, along with one other key reality. 

Some of Tony Urquhart's best students today are his grandchildren, pictured here receiving a watercolour lesson. (Submitted by Emily Urquhart)

"What we're seeing now is that the largest cohort in the history of the world is growing old. And they're ... economically very powerful. So there is a chance that people who are over the age of 65, 70, 80, will start to recognize the work of their peers, and put some of that power behind it," she said.

"Maybe we can start changing our opinions of who is an artist and who isn't." 

Written and produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes

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