Rohan Spong

Documentary Filmmaker
Headshot of a man

Photo courtesy of Rohan Spong

You want to give a good performance. There is no way possible you can be 100% perfect, although it's exciting to try to be perfect. I try to perform as honestly as possible and some days it comes out, some days it doesn't, and just go roll with the punches if it doesn't work out la guerre but you try for it, and that's what makes performance so exciting.

Jo Reed: That is the late dancer Dudley Williams in an excerpt from Rohan Spong’s documentary Winter at Westbeth and this is artworks, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed.

Westbeth Artists Housing is on the far west side of lower Manhattan—the complex is a full city block and it was designed in the 1960s with artists in mind—it has some 385 rent-controlled apartments, studios, rehearsal spaces, multi-purpose spaces, a public art gallery. Its residents are artists of all stripes: actors, dancers, painters, writers, singers and so on. Many have lived there for decades—affordable housing being a perennial problem in New York—so while there are younger artists and families living there, most of its residents are over 60—but they are a vibrant, engaged group as Rohan Spong’s new documentary Winter at Westbeth demonstrates. He looks at three of the residents—ranging in age from 95 to 75—all three are still working at their art, eager to find new forms of expression. Rohan Spong has made a sensitive film about older work-a-day artists who have respect if not fame. It’s the second film project Australian Rohan Spong has made about little-known older New York City artists—which I found intriguing.

And you focused on three artists. So Ilsa Gilbert, who is Mimi's partner, and she's a poet.  So, I guess, in some sense, she was logical.

Rohan Spong:  She was a logical choice, for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, I mean, her poetry speaks of what it means to get older and to reflect on your life, and it's quite moving. You know, it's quite easy to understand.  It's quite accessible.  She writes in a very direct manner

Moss

Knowing death so much, / I know life / As one is always amazed at the contrast— / thinking of one / One thinks of the other, / But as one gets older, / the balance shifts, / You would think / You would think of death / More often, / But actually, / You think more often / Of life, / The preciousness of it / Grows like moss / On a rock, / Clinging to something hard / And steadfast, / As it slowly / Enlarges its presence.

Rohan Spong: I think, when you make documentaries, part of what you're chasing is spontaneity that things will unfold on camera in real time.  And I had this, sort of, perverse idea that wouldn't it be great to tell the story of this building, via literally the first person I had ever met from that building?  To have that as, sort of, the narrator or the navigator through the space. So that's partially why she's a character, but she also narrates sections of the film. The second choice was Edith Steffen, who had a later life transition from being a dancer, a sort of avant-garde dancer, of the period known as, "The Happening."  And later in her life, she had transitioned to filmmaking, and I thought, you know, somebody's teaching themselves filmmaking, kind of, in their 90's, that's really, really remarkable. And what is it that this person has to say and what is it that they would like to record and share with an audience?  So that's part of the reason why I chose her.  Also, you know, visually, she's just very dynamic.  She has, you know, fluorescent orange hair, and she's not ready to start the day until her green eyeshadow is on and her purple nail polish is on.  So, you know, part of it is, you know, in casting a film, is that you're looking for visuals as much as character.  And then, the third person in the film is a dancer by the name of Dudley Williams.  Now, most people will probably know of him.  He's really an icon of contemporary dance in this country, and he had danced with Martha Graham and then, later, with Alvin Ailey.  In fact, for six years, he danced with both companies and he had a very, very long professional dance career.  And people in the building knew he lived there, and he was something of a mystery, something of a recluse, and I just thought that that might be something worth unraveling over the course of the year.  Why was it that his neighbors were uncertain whether he still lived in the building?  And what was it that he had to say about his career, now that he was no longer dancing professionally?

Jo Reed:  Was it difficult to get entre to these three people?  I would think Dudley, the most, because he seemed the most reticent, though he opened up. 

Rohan Spong:  Yeah, Ilsa and Edith were both really on board with participating in the film, from the get go.  Dudley, interestingly, was really happy to be filmed and really happy to share his life story with me, off camera, but didn't want to be interviewed immediately.  So the interviews that occur in the film happen a little bit, sort of, after they appear.  And I think part of that was just establishing trust before he committed to telling his life story, that he did sort of trust that, I guess, I was doing it for the right reasons, or that the collaboration was going to be a good one.

Jo Reed:  How did you do that?

Rohan Spong:  To be honest, I just spent a lot of time with him.  I shadowed him with a camera and filmed him going about his life, and he was really happy to do that.  So, you know, I follow him to rehearsals.  I follow him to classes where he's teaching the Martha Graham technique.  We're on the bus.  We're feeding pigeons.  We're at restaurants.  We're at cafés.  We're walking from here to there, getting his groceries, all of that.  And so, I think, once he knew that I was serious, that it wasn't just going to be-- that I wasn't going to edit him into just, you know, three neat sound bites, but I was interested in a much larger story, I think that's part of how and why he chose to do the interviews.

Jo Reed:  Because even though he's retired, and I'm using inverted commas, as you said, he teaches, he had worked with Earl Mosley in Connecticut and New Jersey.

Rohan Spong:  So he, sort of, describes himself as being semi-retired in the film.  He's retired, I guess, from the professional stage, in the sense that he's not dancing at Lincoln Center anymore, but he's still dancing.  Yeah, in the course of the year that I was filming with him, he that gig in Connecticut with Earl Mosely.  He had a couple of performances in Harlem, and yeah, this piece that he was working on with Mr. Mosely.

Jo Reed:  It's interesting, because as you say, all three of them are older people.  Edith, I think, probably the oldest.  She's 95?

Rohan Spong:  She's 95 when the film's shot, yeah.

Jo Reed:  And Ilsa...

Rohan Spong:  Is 81, and Dudley was 75.

Jo Reed:  And all three of them are still working?

Rohan Spong:  Absolutely.  Yeah, I mean, you know, we follow Ilsa to a pen meeting, you know, a writer’s pen meeting, and she's reading an old poem, reading a new poem, talking about how she can fix this aspect of her poem, participating in a conversation with the other writers.  Edith, at 95, is editing a film with the assistance of somebody she met on Craigslist.  So the...

Jo Reed:  Go Edith.  <laughs>

Rohan Spong:  Absolutely.  Absolutely.  They're all, very much, still going about their craft, and still very passionate about participating in the world.  I think we often tend to assume that when people get older, they no longer take an interest in the world around them.  And here are three individuals who have an interest in, kind of, the political landscape around them, who want to make work, want to share work, and participate in that kind of a dialog.

Jo Reed:  Now, this is the third—the second film, rather, that you've done about older artists in New York City.

Rohan Spong:  Um-hum.

Jo Reed:  What is that trifecta?  What does that mean to you?  <laughs>

Rohan Spong:  Yeah, I don't know.  It's...

Jo Reed:  Now, granted, I'm from New York, so I can approve of that completely, but I'm just curious.

Rohan Spong:  I think one thing just led to another.  So "All the Way Through Evening" was a very, very small film.  It's, sort of, set over two or three months, and it's Mimi putting on this concert of HIV/AIDS composers' music.  And what drew it to me was not the topic.  More the idea of honoring, like, a friendship for 20 years.  That, you know, these men have passed on and she's honoring this friendship by performing this music and, I guess, kind of, having a, sort of—what’s the word?  Like, a sort of communion with them.

Jo Reed:  I was going to say, yeah, a cathartic moment.

Rohan Spong:  Yeah, a cathartic moment.  And I was really, kind of, intrigued and attracted by that.  And then, once that film was completed, it screened theatrically in Australia.  It had a very, kind of, short theatrical release here in the US, and it did, kind of, cable and one thing just, sort of, led to another.  I guess, I was hanging out with Mimi and we stumbled into Westbeth.  So it felt like the logical thing to do, I think.  People pitch me things to do all the time and, you know, you are always waiting for that moment where the hair on your arms goes up, and you sort of say to yourself, "Yes, this is it."  And something about entering Westbeth and the time of life that I was at, in terms of, do I persist with this or what do I do with my own life?  <laughs> Yeah, I think that's part of the reason why I chose to do Winter at Westbeth.  Because I was curious about if I did stay on this path, where might I wind up and would I be happy, and what sort of sacrifices would I make, and would they be worth it?  And, you know, ultimately, the answer is yes, absolutely, go forth.

Jo Reed:  Yeah, it's interesting, when I was watching it.  Because we have this idea, certainly, in the United States; I would imagine in Australia, as well, about what a successful life means, especially in the arts.  And fame is pretty front and center in what the popular perception of that is, as well as having money.  And I think, with your film, we see people who are indeed very successful and are, you know, fairly comfortable.  They don't have lots of money, and, you know, Dudley Williams is the most famous.  But they're fine.  I mean, they're happy.  I think they would judge that they've led full and rich lives.

Rohan Spong:  Very full, very rich lives.

Jo Reed:  And it gives you...

Rohan Spong:  They're fulfilled.

Jo Reed: …it jiggles that popular perception.

Rohan Spong:  Yeah, absolutely.  Well, I hope it does.  I feel like my own journey of discovery during the film was that the things that are important in life are that you feel fulfilled, regardless of how polished the roof is over your head and how much lobster there is on the table.  <laughs>

Jo Reed:  <laughs>

Rohan Spong:  I must say, we don't really get a lot of lobster in Australia.  So whenever there's, like, a lobster ravioli or something at a diner in New York, I'm all over that like a bad rash.

Jo Reed:  Oh, you must love New York.  Because there's...

Rohan Spong:  Yeah... 

Jo Reed: ...a lot of lobster everywhere.

Rohan Spong:  There's a lot of lobster.  <laughs>

Jo Reed:  <laughs> Now, tell me about the process of filming.  You explained a little bit how you started with Dudley of just trailing him before you started doing the interviews.  What about with Ilsa and with Edith?

Rohan Spong:  So the film is shot over four seasons.  It's really five trips, five short trips back and forth from Melbourne, Australia where I'm from, to New York.  And the trips were anywhere between, I think, two and four weeks.  And often, I would just simply go around to their place.  I mean, we'd organize a time to do some filming, and I would go around and "What are you doing?  What are you up to?"  So there was a lot of, kind of, open-endedness about what I might film when I arrived, and if there wasn't, sort of, a clear idea, then I would sit down and get an interview.  But Edith, for example, you know, one day says, "You know, I'd like to go out into the garden and have a dance."  And so, you know, off I went with her.  And when somebody who's 95 and trusts you with that, it's a pretty amazing day at the office.  But yeah, half of it is interview and half of it is them going about their business.  Aside from Dudley's, sort of, main dance near the end and Ilsa's poem, which occurs on the roof of Westbeth, nothing that occurs in the film would not otherwise have occurred had I not been there.  So we, sort of, see Ilsa go to the senior center and pen meetings and walking around her neighborhood, and Edith, you know, is editing and is screening a rough cut of her film.  So...

Jo Reed:  And putting on her green eyeshadow.

Rohan Spong:  And putting on her green eyeshadow.  So yeah, it's very much a, kind of, fly on the wall at times, of what the lives of these elderly people, you know, is like.  And I think, often, those sorts of people don't get very much screen time, or if they do, it's very, kind of, you know, they're kind of the butt of the joke, and they're, like, not even the supporting character.  They're the character that's, kind of, rolled out for two or three funny lines and then rolled back in again.  So I think it's nice to spend a whole film with them.

Jo Reed:  You broke the fourth wall with each of them.  Not a lot, but, you know, very, very—you know, just a...

Rohan Spong:  Just a hint.  <laughs>

Jo Reed:  <laughs>

Rohan Spong:  Previously, I had not done that a lot.  It was not something that interested me or intrigued me.  I worked with two editors on this film, Cindy Clarkson and Peter Carrodus, who are both Australian editors that both have worked, both, in non-fiction and fiction.  And those, sort of, scraps, those little moments, where there is a little bit of a conversation occurring or a bit of giggling, more often than not.  I felt really uncomfortable when I first watched them in the rough cut.  Because I felt like it wasn't really my story, and I would not otherwise have used those materials.  But watching the film back, I can appreciate that, in many ways, it sort of makes the audience feel at ease.  Like, it allows the audience to realize that, "Okay.  Yes, it's fine to laugh.  I'm not laughing at somebody.  I’m laughing with somebody.  It's fine to cry.  I'm crying as this person tells me the story as though I'm sitting where Rohan's sitting in the arm chair directly opposite."  I think it gives the audience permission to open some emotional valves that maybe they might not otherwise.

Jo Reed: Did you feel protective of Dudley, Ilsa, and Edith...

Rohan Spong:  Absolutely.

Jo Reed: ...as a filmmaker?  Yeah.

Rohan Spong:  Absolutely.  I still do.  It's funny.  You know, today, we've just screened the film at the Library of Congress and, you know, you're very conscious that you don't want the audience to ask something that is going to put them too on the spot, or whatever.  It's funny that.  It's funny how you feel that way.  Dudley, yeah, especially, towards the end of his life when it became apparent that he was really getting quite frail, probably, the lines of what a documentarian normally does and, sort of, the idea of shaking hands and going home, you know, really went out the window.  And, I was making sure, really, ultimately, that he was getting the sort of care that one might need at that time of his life, alongside a number of other people that were part of his peer group.  Yeah, they become like family.  They become friends.

Jo Reed:  Did they see the film?

Rohan Spong:  Everybody's seen the film, except for Dudley.

Jo Reed:  Oh, Dudley had passed away before the film was done?

Rohan Spong:  Yeah, he'd seen sections of it, and we had to identify some people in photographs and that sort of thing.  And I also wanted him to participate in, sort of, choosing the photographs that went with the period of time that he was talking about in the film.  So yeah, he'd seen sections of it, but he hadn't seen the whole thing, and he certainly hadn't seen it cut together with the other characters intercut.  And that is very difficult when you're editing a film, and you know that there's not going to be a right of reply.  You know, if you think about Ilsa and Edith, they can turn to me at any moment and say, "Oh, I liked that," or "I didn't like that," or whatever.  Thankfully, they're both on board with it.  But...

Jo Reed:  Suppose they hadn't?

Rohan Spong:  Yeah, suppose they hadn't.  I mean, that would've been complicated, but at least, we could've had a face-to-face conversation about it.

Jo Reed:  Got it.  Mm-hm.

Rohan Spong:  Whereas, with Dudley, him having passed means that, you know, he is ultimately not able to participate in a conversation about whether he feels that the film is a fair reflection of his life.

Jo Reed:  Ilsa and with Edith just seemed more open to it.  Let's put it that way.

Rohan Spong:  At the beginning, Dudley wasn't necessarily keen on me interviewing him and knowing that much about his personal life.  And so, I think, you know, the audience, hopefully, sort of, sees that journey.  That's one of, kind of, the subplots in the film really, is that it starts out and he, sort of, thinks he's just in this film with lots of other people.  But, ultimately, you know, our relationship develops into something on camera of, sort of, friendship and camaraderie.  And, you know, two blokes having a bit of a laugh, and what it means to be, like, at that time of your life and to be making new friends.  I mean, I think that's true of all the people in Westbeth is that, you know, because of the nature of that building you have to be open to meeting new friends, and that’s part of Dudley's trajectory in the film.

Jo Reed:  Yeah, well, he thanks you at the end.

Rohan Spong:  Yeah, it still...

Jo Reed:  Which was very...

Rohan Spong: ...slays me.  <laughs>

Jo Reed:  It was very, very moving.  Because it clearly came from the heart.

Rohan Spong:  Yeah, I mean, there were lots of moments in the filming, where all the participants made those sorts of gestures, and they were never going to be included in the film.  You know, it's lovely when someone says those things to you, but you don't necessarily need to film it and the audience doesn't necessarily need to see it.  But yeah, when the editor put that there, and it was that statement near the end, I understood why.  I understood why, and...

Jo Reed:  It seemed absolutely appropriate to me.

Rohan Spong:  Yeah, the audience seems to—it seems to resonate.  And ultimately, that's what I'm trying to do.  I'm trying to make people not just think about these people's lives, but to feel, to empathize, to try and walk in somebody else's shoes for 90 minutes.

Jo Reed:  So what was the most challenging part of putting together Winter at Westbeth?

Rohan Spong:  Probably, the editing, actually.  Yeah, just trying to get the balance of the three characters, working out when to cut from one character to the other, and to not make those edits so non sequitur.  You know, you want it to feel like it's natural that we drop Ilsa's story at this moment and move to Dudley's. Trying to, kind of, create an arc, so that each character was going on a journey, but also, being able to, sort of, pivot between the characters in a way that didn't feel like hard cuts.

Jo Reed:  That's a hard thing to structure a story in a...

Rohan Spong:  Hugely difficult.

Jo Reed: ...way that, kind of, make sense.  Do you have—is it instinct?  I mean, do you cut with your camera, so that—if you know what I mean?

Rohan Spong:  Yeah.

Jo Reed:  Or do you, you know, just let it unfold as you film, and hope when you sit at the editing board, you'll structure it then?

Rohan Spong:  There are few instances where, like, on the fifth, the final trip, I was, like, "Okay.  Maybe, all I really need to do here is come out of the building and go back into it again."  So it was about filming the right, sort of, establishing shots for the scenes, even if it was, you know, six months after the fact. It was complex.  It was very much like—I can only liken it to, sort of, patchwork, in a way.  Like, the idea of cutting pieces out and rearranging them and, sort of, deciding how best they fit together, before committing to sew them together.

Jo Reed:  Like all artists, filmmakers, are creative people, and they're marketing people.

Rohan Spong:  <laughs>

Jo Reed:  And those are two very different tasks.  <laughs>

Rohan Spong:  They're very different hats, that's for sure.

Jo Reed:  And I'm imagining, and correct me if I'm wrong, but if there is something really challenging about marketing documentaries that are about older people, that add to the whole marketing complex.

Rohan Spong:  Side of things, yeah.  Well, I think, on one hand, we've been a little bit fortunate in the sense that, I guess, the early response to the film, people said things like, "Oh, it's like Iris," or "It's like Bill Cunningham New York."  Or it's like these films that are, kind of—thankfully, rather, kind of, high water marks of documentaries about older artists.  But by the same token, you know, the artists in Winter at Westbeth aren't as well known.  Perhaps, Dudley is, to some degree, in communities...

Jo Reed:  He's certainly the best known, yeah.

Rohan Spong:  Yeah.  And so that's a bit of a hard sell.  And also, I think, we're so used to, sort of, going to the cinema and seeing, you know, lens flares and explosions and fast edits and all the rest of it, and not, kind of, having that quiet, meditative time where the story, kind of, washes over us, and there's an emotional payoff at the end.  I think we're becoming less and less—I don't know—less and less in tune with doing that.  I don't know whether it's because we're all behind screens and on Facebook and social media and all the rest of it all the time, or what it is.  But that's been, I guess, the hard sell.  Getting people to the cinema has been hard.  But then, when people leave the film, thankfully, they're great advocates of it, and the audience is growing through word of mouth.  

Jo Reed:  How did you get into film?  Did you come from an artistic family?

Rohan Spong:  No, not at all.  My father was a truck driver and a courier, and my mother does, like, office administration.  And I went to school and then, I decided I'd do, like, a creative or fine arts degree at university, and I was a painter.  I was a painting major, and then, in my first year, I sort of took photography and film, and I don't know why I transitioned.  Painting was easy to me.  It came easily to me, and I felt like it wasn't challenging. I just couldn't imagine doing it for the rest of my life.  That's probably a better way of phrasing it.  I was 18 and I couldn't imagine getting up every day and doing it and having a studio.  I felt like it was something that was becoming more of a hobby, and film and taking photographs, and particularly working in film, initially, before moving to video was a real challenge.  And even now, the lenses that I use when I film, I use SLR lenses from, like, the late '70s.  So even though I'm not working with film with celluloid as a medium, I'm looking at the images through lenses that are familiar to me as film lenses.

Jo Reed:  And documentary films, what was the draw there, as opposed to narrative films?

Rohan Spong:  I had a job that I very much bluffed my way into at UCLA in Los Angeles.  And I came upon a transgender schoolteacher, by the name of Michelle, and I thought, "Gee, this is a really interesting story.  It has a lot of conflict.  You know, as parents, as children, as the school administration, as Michelle's own journey."  And so I did a little research into what had happened to other teachers who had done that transition, and cut together a very early documentary.  So it was a 70-minute piece, looking at four different teachers who had done that transition, I guess, it was well received.  And one thing led to another and I was back making another film, in no time, at all.  Yeah, I'm interested in the idea of doing a narrative film, but not just yet.  I'm not sure.

Jo Reed:  What about films that influenced you or inspired you, early on?  Were there any?

Rohan Spong:  Absolutely.  I think, in America, you guys say, "Play hooky," to skip school; is that right?

Jo Reed:  Yes, we do.

Rohan Spong:  I was playing hooky.  I used to skip school, and I used to go to the cinema a lot.  In Australia, we say, "Wagging."  I was wagging school.  I was wagging school a lot to go to the cinema in my final year of high school.  And one of the films that really I found incredibly overwhelming was Spike Lee's Summer of Sam.  I don't know if you've seen it.  It's set in 1970's in New York.  The Son of Sam killer is on the loose.  Disco is on the way out.  Punk is on the way in.  It's just a really immersive experience, and this idea of having several strands of plot that were, kind of, all going on at the same time...

Jo Reed:  The big blackout?

Rohan Spong:  The big blackouts. There's lot of American history stuffed into that—I don't know.  I'm assuming it's about two hours long.  I watched it again recently.  It's dated really, really well.  Like, it's such a beautifully shot film.  The performances are really great in it.  And the way that the coverage of the actors, as they go about the scenes, a lot of it's shot with two cameras, long takes, kind of, cutting between two different angles.  It's a really, really amazing piece of work.  And I remember walking out of it feeling like blisteringly hot, like, I actually had come out of the sweltering summer.  That was a really, really immersive experience for me. 

Jo Reed: When you're looking back at Winter at Westbeth, what's the most rewarding part for you, do you think?

Rohan Spong:  That's a really hard question to answer.  There are some aspects of it, technically, that were very, very difficult for me that, you know, I can appreciate, looking back.  Like, some of those situations to be shooting in with very minimal experience beforehand, walking into a space and being able to just nail it.  That's incredibly rewarding.  Anticipating what is going to unfold and therefore being able to follow up with the camera.  Because it's, actually, quite difficult operating a camera, as people are doing things that are unscripted, and knowing where to point that camera.  That's quite difficult.  And knowing what other shots you might need to stitch that story together, if you were to, sort of, truncate it.  So that's a complex task.  When I'm nailing that, I feel very rewarded, as a practitioner.  But, I guess, as a human being, there are still moments of the film that move me.  You know, I watched it today at the Library of Congress and, you know, when Ilsa reads her final poem, there was, sort of, projectile tears from everybody in the audience.  And that's really—including myself, and I've seen the film a hundred times now.  I know how it ends.  And it's very rewarding to think that the audience has been moved by something that you've put together. Dudley's story, as well, very much so is difficult to talk about, but it was such a beautiful and complex friendship, as much as it was a professional relationship. Regardless of whether you're watching him dance on stage or regardless of whether you are sitting at a café with him, having a cup of tea, he is always slowly revealing more and more and more of himself.

Jo Reed:  He was so intriguing because he was so guarded, and it was like veil by veil by veil...

Rohan Spong:  Gets lifted away.

Jo Reed: ...slowly were being stripped back.  And it was so fascinating to watch that unfold.

Rohan Spong:  And that says, you know, as an interview subject, as a friend, as a human being, but even when you watch him dance, I mean, he has this amazing ability of—it’s like his iconic style of movement that only he could do.

Jo Reed:  Any advice for anybody listening who might want to become a documentary filmmaker?  Other than have a rich father and mother?  <laughs>

Rohan Spong:  Oh, well, <laughs> God, how many films could I have made, had that been the case?  Many.  <laughs>  First of all, buy a nice lens.  But aside from that, I was sitting on a panel at DOC NYC, and Rachel Boynton, who made a film called, Big Men, was sitting next to me.  And she was saying, "You have to love the people that you film, even if they're the antagonist in the story, if they're the bad guy.  You have to identify something in them that you understand and love."  I mean, it was quite easy with Winter at Westbeth, because they were all such beautiful people.  But yeah, you have to love the people that you film.  You have to love people.  You have to be all about, kind of, humans and human interaction and understanding human interaction.  I think that's what the task is.

Jo Reed:  Well, I think it's a task you did so well, and thank you for coming in.  It's a beautiful film.  I was really moved when I saw it.  So thank you.

Rohan Spong:  Thank you so much for having me.  It's a huge honor to be here.

Jo Reed:  You're welcome.  Thank you. That's Rohan Spong talking about his documentary, Winter at Westbeth.

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 For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. 

Winter at Westbeth shines a light on artists and aging.