Back to art school for the silver-haired generation
June 8, 2016

Retired doctors Christiane Poulin and David Elliott are both now studying at NSCAD. "We are having fun and pushing ourselves," says David. 
What is it like to go to art school when you’re in your 50s or 60s?

For retired doctors Christiane Poulin and David Elliott, both with 35-plus-year careers in medicine, the descriptors they come up with include “intimidating” and “challenging” as well as “enriching,” “fascinating” and “full of possibilities.”

“We are having fun and we are pushing ourselves,” says David, a former policy advisor and analyst for the Nova Scotia Department of Health, now a non-degree student in photography and film.

“Sometimes it feels like we’ve never worked harder,” adds Christiane, a retired public health doctor and researcher who is working towards an interdisciplinary BFA at NSCAD.

Originally from Montreal, Christiane actually did a year of fine arts studies in 1970 before moving on to complete a science degree and then med school. Her intention was always to circle back and finish what she started a lifetime ago.

“I’ve always sewn and designed. I knit and crochet and am an avid recycler. I made my own clothes, and as an intern designed and sewed couture ‘hospital whites’—I mean, they were really nice whites,” she says with a laugh.

Throughout his career, David realized he had a talent for visualizing health data and presenting it in a way that was “clear, elegant and understandable.” “I can visualize something from end to end,” he explains, “like a movie director.” Retirement afforded him the opportunity to pursue his interest in film and video, and increase his technical skills in photography. Intro filmmaking taught by David Middleton, he informs, “is the hardest course I’ve done since calculus.”

As silver-haired students, Christiane and David express a deep sense of appreciation for the expertise of their professors and the richness of their NSCAD experience. They also feel their studies are bringing something amazing to their lives. It is about life-long learning.

“We come home and discuss what we’ve learned during the day (the pair were avid attendees of Bruce Barber’s Dada soirees on Monday nights through the winter semester) and collaborate in bringing ideas to life,” says Christiane, who has already started getting ready for her grad show slated for the next academic year.

Christiane and David are both impressed with their younger classmates “as uninhibited thinkers who’ve not been made cynical by life.” They add they’ve never encountered students who work harder or with more passion than those who attend NSCAD.

They also feel embraced by their classmates for what they bring to the classroom, namely their willingness to take chances, ask questions, and share the technical skills, experiences and first-hand knowledge that comes from having lived through half of the 20th century. “We have some opinions about it,” says David, dryly.

Weavings by Jennifer MacLeod. 

Jennifer MacLeod, textiles student

As a homemaker and stay-at-home mother, Jennifer MacLeod embarked on her NSCAD journey seven years ago, with the nest empty and her husband back in the workforce after a short-lived retirement. The decision was many years in the making, sparked by a don in residence (at the University of King’s College), a NSCAD grad who had a loom in her room.

She appreciates the opportunity to “undertake artistic pursuits in the company of like-minded people of various ages,” made possible in part by discounted tuition for students over the age of 60.

“As a mature student, over the last seven years, I have learned a great deal from the younger students in my classes. It's refreshing to look at things through their eyes,” she says.

“The small studio class sizes allow for a greater interaction. The fact that the instructors are artists, themselves, also helps each and every student. We have such a talented group of professionals who show us the way to develop our individual talents.”

Harold Klee (BFA 2015)

Before coming to NSCAD, Harold Klee pursued a career in Information Technology. He originally registered as a non-degree student, but after the first semester decided to plunge right in and pursue a degree.

“Of course I was concerned that I might be somewhat excluded because of my age (but) from the very first hour, I realized that my concerns were unfounded.  I was immediately accepted as part of the class, and the friends and acquaintances I made during my five years at NSCAD will always be precious to me,” he says.

“Their creativity and energy never ceases to amaze me.  From time to time, my classmates sought me out for help, if they thought that my knowledge and experience might be useful to them.  I found my ability to help them out particularly rewarding.  The opportunity to have my work critiqued by other students (and to critique theirs in turn), was of great value to me, as was the opportunity to display my work in a public gallery.”

He continues: “In the course of my studies, I was fortunate to win a number of awards and scholarships. I am grateful to NSCAD both for the financial assistance I was given and for the validation these awards gave me as an artist.”

 The Side Yard, oil on canvas, 5 by 7", by Catherine Constable.

Catherine Constable (BFA 2014)

For Catherine Constable, a retired public servant who worked in the realms of policy and indigenous land claims and self government, coming to NSCAD was “the fulfillment of a dream.” She arrived thinking she would study painting, then flirted with jewellery and metalsmithing, and eventually fell in love with photography.

Through it all, she says, she “was pushed beyond her comfort zone in so many ways” and worked incredibly hard in order to take full advantage of all the opportunities art school presented. As an older student, she adds, going to NSCAD could be socially isolating and expensive, even with the tuition discount for seniors.

Her advice? “Based on my own experience, I would say: be prepared to work VERY hard in order to take full advantage of the opportunity.  Be prepared to be discouraged as that’s endemic to being an artist, not just a mature student.  At the same time, be prepared to be surprised and delighted — I spent my previous life believing I couldn’t draw, but who knew, drawing can be taught, I had good drawing teachers and now I draw pretty darned well.  Be prepared for what it will cost you financially; whatever you think, it’s likely going to cost more, because art materials are costly and addictive. 

"Enjoy the freedom you have as a mature student to explore what truly interests you while being prepared to push yourself out of your comfort zone when new interests beckon, as there will be no shortage of them at NSCAD.”

Joan Phaedon Tingley, NSCAD student
As a registered nurse, Joan Phaedon Tingley worked in many areas of nursing, from trauma and emergency to ICU and cardiac. But after being assaulted by a combative patient in 2004, she underwent several surgeries and developed PTSD. “I lost my career because I no longer was able to interact with patients and became a recluse,” she informs.

After moving to be with her daughter in Halifax, she was encouraged to take a drawing class through Extended Studies at NSCAD. Then, she met Bill Travis in the Office of Student Services, and decided she would explore some more at NSCAD. She is now going into her third year of study, majoring in sculpture and minoring in drawing and art history.

“I was nervous I would be ostracized by the much younger majority of students, the instructors might feel I wasn't serious about university, and afraid I wouldn't mentally be able to cope with university life,” she confesses. “If I was to recommend NSCAD to another, and I would, I would repeat the preceding and point out how all of my fears were not realized, and dealt with mostly due to the support from the programs in place and the staff which oversees them. The students are from all nationalities, types and ages and I have never once felt out of place and have made so many friends. I am now a member of Peer Support, a mental health program put in place to help people like me, this way I can pay it forward somewhat. I am doing so well and feel so empowered in my studies, future career choice and personal life.”

W. Ford Dolittle (BFA 2013)

Dalhousie Professor Emeritus Ford Dolittle is a well respected biochemist, a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and the Norwegian Academy of Science and winner of the 2014 Herzberg Medal of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. As he built a distinguished degree in science, he worked steadily, one class at a time, at his Bachelor of Fine Art degree at NSCAD, majoring in photography and graduating in 2013. He confesses he wishes he was still going to NSCAD, adding “I might come back for another degree in my 80s.”

“Making art is intrinsically rewarding. I much enjoyed interaction with faculty and (of course much younger) students,” he writes. “It was an excellent way to not think about my day job (as Biochemistry professor at Dal) for 12 hours at a time. Indeed, my science benefitted from my doing art and (less obviously) vice versa.”

Would he recommend the experience for others?

“Go for it! Older students seem to be appreciated by faculty—we never say the dog ate our homework or come to class hung over, and understand jokes coming from the 1960s—and are treated with tolerance, respect and amusement by younger students.”