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Self Portraits
Sharron Allen shows off her artwork.
PHOTO BY ERIN ROLL/STAFF

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

Montclair seniors were invited to pick up their paint brushes, pastels and pencils, and ask, “what does aging look and feel like?”

This is Self Portraits: Faces of Aging — a project aimed at disrupting the stereotypes about aging and older adults. Older Montclair-area residents created self-portraits and reflections on what aging means to them. And in its first year, 57 seniors submitted to the project, said Katie York, the township’s director of senior services.

The township will launch an online art gallery on May 1, and some of the portraits will be included at the Montclair Art Museum’s Free First Thursday event, May 2.

Ten of the portraits will also be featured on banners in the South End Business district and the Montclair Center business district in May. Portraits were chosen based on what would transfer well to a banner, York said.

Other seniors contribute quotations or reflections on aging.

Sharron Allen’s self portrait for the Faces of Aging project is an abstract portrait, and reveals how she discovered a new life after retirement.

Allen freely admits that she has never liked drawing or painting. When she was in school, she was glad when art class focused more on topics like art history, rather than on hands-on art.

But she discovered, two years ago, that she enjoyed working in collages.

Allen retired after a 30-year career working for the postal service: a career that, she admits, didn’t leave much room for creativity. After her retirement, she found herself taking adult classes, including those offered through the Montclair Institute for Lifelong Learning. “I’ll try anything now that I’m retired.” This led her to DeWitt’s art classes.

Allen was initially wary when DeWitt told the class that they would be doing self portraits. But she was pleased to learn that their portraits could be abstract ones, rather than strictly portraits of faces. Her portrait was one of 10 chosen to be displayed on banners around Montclair advertising the Faces of Aging project.

At the center of Allen’s portrait is a hand tracing that she cut from a photo of a stone statue’s face. The hand, she says, represents the idea of helping hands and volunteering. Around the hand are photos representing her own journey since retirement.

She joined a black genealogy group and had her DNA tested. She found her ancestry traced to England, Scotland, Mali, Nigeria and many other places. Last year, Allen and her daughter went on a trip to Kenya, and she worked photos from the trip, including from a dance lesson, and a meeting with the Maasai, into the art. And she also went on a cross-country road trip with a friend through the United States and Canada. Someday, she said, she hopes to visit all of the countries and places she identified in her family’s ancestry.

“I’m learning to be more open with myself,” she said.

Allen also likes the idea of art that is meant to be used, rather than simply put on display. She had one of her collages, “Modernity” – a plethora of older typewriters, telephones and filing cabinets floating against a backdrop of social media posts – turned into a protective case for her phone, and she is also working with designs for cards, magnets, and sneakers.

PHOTO COURTESY KATIE YORK: A watercolor self portrait by Marie Claire Hepp.

Marie Claire Hepp’s portrait stemmed from a MILL watercolor class, in which each of the students brought in a photo of themselves, which they would then use to create self-portraits.

Hepp did a lot of work in textiles and similar media when she was in college, including in weaving, basketry, jewelry making and batik. She graduated with a degree in English literature, and her career was in advertising. In hindsight, she said, if she had known then that it was possible to have a career in textile art, she would have pursued it. At the very least, she said, art is a hobby that brings her a lot of enjoyment.

“I’m a novice when it comes to watercolors,” she said. Learning how to mix colors to get just the right lights, mediums and darks is a challenge she enjoys. The portrait was also an exercise in balancing the different elements of the photo, including facial features.

“I wanted it to be realistic, of course,” she said. But she also wanted the portrait to have a certain vibrancy and energy.

“What I’m experiencing is…as you get older, you become invisible to a lot of the population,” she said about a culture that seems to prize youth. She wanted her portrait to suggest that getting older is still a fun time of life. “Maybe getting older isn’t so bad.”

And the class offered a supportive environment, opening up new horizons.

Hepp’s portrait was among the artwork chosen to go on the banners in the business districts.

Online, the portraits will be accompanied by quotes on what aging means to Montclair seniors.

“My aging experience means a few more aches and pains, but busier than ever.”

“Aging is just a number. It’s all about the attitude.”

All 57 portraits will be available on the online gallery www.lifelongmontclair.org/facesofaging and Thursday night will feature some of them at the MAM event, which is free.