Just a number: Does our age affect how creative we are?
Enthusiastic, knowledgeable, daring, wise – it’s common to make assumptions about people depending on their age. But does one group have it best when it comes to creative work?
In 2012, it was noteworthy that Jessica Walsh became a partner at Sagmeister & Walsh, but more so when we hear she did at 25. This year, most of us caught wind of Preston Mutanga, the 14-year-old hired to animate a scene in Across the Spider-Verse. Just like we heard Veronica Ryan was the oldest artist to ever win the Turner Prize, at 66, or Kennedi Carter was the youngest photographer to shoot a cover for Vogue, at just 21.
We are drawn to stories of artists and their ages. It’s easy to see why. It’s exciting to hear about people mastering their skill at a tender age or achieving big later in life. Our fascination with age informs how we think about an artist’s work too. An early debut album, let’s say, might be regarded as raw and pioneering whereas we’d expect quieter authority and skill in a work from a more seasoned auteur. Similarly, there tends to be a buzz around the limitless imagination of young emerging artists, much more than equally inexperienced mature artists.
Though, when you consider the range of factors that shape an artist’s life, a lot of these ideas begin to crumble. So to find out if there is truly a correlation between our age and our capacity for creativity, we’ve invited together three creatives whose voices span generations – painter Anne Rothenstein, publisher Milah Libin and illustrator Yuko Shimizu – to talk it over.
It’s Nice That: Welcome everyone! I thought we could start with introductions. What do you do as a creative and how long have you been doing it?
Anne Rothenstein: I’m Anne, I’m a painter and I’ve been painting coming out of the womb, basically. I was born into a family of painters so I’ve been doing it all my life.
Yuko Shimizu: My name is Yuko Shimizu. I’m a commercial illustrator – I draw for magazines, newspapers, books and advertising. I’ve been drawing ever since I was a child, like Anne, but I went a completely different path after university and this is my second career.
Milah Libin: I’m Milah, I am the editor-in-chief and publisher of Dizzy Books. We have two art magazines; one is an annual journal, the other is a children’s art magazine that’s made by and for people of all ages. My own creative practice is more private – I write poetry and illustrate and play music – but again, that’s very much in my apartment. Like you guys, I’ve been making art since I was very young. I had an e-newsletter when I was around 11 years old and I guess you could date my interest in publishing back to that.
“I think the young have incredible, daring creativity, because they think they’re the greatest people in the world.”Anne Rothenstein
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Anne Rothenstein: Bruised 1. Courtesy the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery. Photo by Todd-White Art Photography (Copyright © Anne Rothenstein, 2022)
INT:A few crossovers there in how long you’ve all been making art. Anne, is it right that you returned to painting in your 70s?
AR:No, that’s not quite right, I did do a year at art school. Then I was an actress for about ten years – I tried not to join the family firm and be a painter. I came back to painting, which coincided with having children, which I always think is quite interesting because a lot of women find it an obstacle to creativity.
So I’ve always shown and painted but when I was 70, I separated from my husband of 45 years and my children had left home and that was the best thing that ever happened to me! I realised what real concentration was, in a completely empty house. I don’t cook, I loathed domestic life, I enjoyed my children! But I started again in a different way – making bigger pieces, and I joined Instagram which I have to say has been very big for me. So this is all very recent but it feels fantastic.
INT: Yuko, I know you studied at the School of Visual Arts later than some of your peers – can you tell us about that journey?
YS:Yes, so I’m the only one who doesn’t come from an artist family and that probably has a lot to do with why I started late. Japanese kids all draw because we grew up with manga and anime, but a very small number of kids grow up to be illustrators. I was told and told myself it’s a phase and to do something practical. So I picked a regular university to major in business and then I got a job doing corporate PR.
I ended up staying there for 11 years. Towards the end, I had two extremely mentally abusive bosses. And that made me realise you know, ‘why am I crying in the bathroom?’ I quit my job, came to New York and then went to the School of Visual Arts. I was 34 and a freshman in college. By the time I started to make a living with my second career, I was already 40.
INT:Yuko, Anne, do you think coming to this kind of creative success later in life benefited your work? Or come with any challenges?
AR: Yes, I don’t think I could have dealt with the pressure when I was young. I think I would have got distracted by what I felt I maybe ought to be doing, whereas now I can just be me. I can say no, I’m tired in the evening, I don’t do dinner. In other words, you can make your own rules at this age without feeling you’re letting anyone down, you can just say ‘I’m an eccentric 74-year-old’. So I am happy that it didn’t happen at that age.
“If I went to art school young I could have been a good artist, but no one can survive on being a good artist alone.”Yuko Shimizu
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Mishou Magazine: Food Issue (Copyright © Dizzy Books)
YS: If I went to art school [earlier], I personally would not have been doing this today, because I had zero common sense and work skill. Being a freelance illustrator, people think we are just sitting in our studio all day and making beautiful things. But in actuality, we are a small business. If I went to art school young, I could have been a good artist, but no one can survive on being a good artist alone. I learned everything else to run my business by doing a shitty corporate show.
INT: I wonder what further differences there might be in the approach of very young creatives. Milah, you’ve seen the creativity of young artists firsthand with Mishou Magazine. Do you think kids are more creative than us?
ML: I don’t think they’re more creative. But I do think that very young children don’t have this ego attached to their work that grown-ups do. Their approach to art-making is really rooted in play and collaboration. I think that as people get older, especially in their 20s, that value of collaboration kind of dissipates, because everybody is freaking out to be seen and get ahead.
INT: Are there any particular creative traits that we lose as we grow up?
ML: Absolutely. I’m so inspired by the young artists that I meet and the way that their practice is guided by a feeling, something very internal. Sometimes what they make is rooted in them feeling frustrated. But [their art] is really a way to connect with other people.
We put out prompts for submissions for Mishou and just seeing where these young artists go with the prompts is hilarious. It can be kind of dark and almost like they don’t give a fuck. I think some of us are more hesitant to be our true authentic self.
INT: That’s interesting, because in the next few decades after childhood, a lot of creatives are gripped with a fear of failure – including me! Anne, is this something that you feel lessens as we grow?
AR:Fear of rejection is a major modern problem, because so many people are chasing the same thing. I grew up in a different time and I’ve been able to avoid all that. I know when it’s a good painting and however much anyone else might not like it, or it might not sell, that won’t stop me from knowing [that]. But I’ve been lucky in terms of always having a gallery and things like that, so I haven’t experienced failure in the way that young people now are absolutely terrified of.
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Copyright © Milah Libin
INT:And do you think that more patience develops for work as we age? Or is that a complete misconception?
AR: No, I think I’ve always had the patience for work, although I’m very impatient in the rest of my life. No, I really think that I found this extraordinary thing where I knew I was never going to be disturbed for as long as I wanted. You know my mum’s painting career really was put on a shelf while my father became successful. I do think that’s a problem particularly for women. I’m not sure how it is for younger women today, but I’m of the generation where the echoes of all that stuff are still incredibly loud. So the liberation of these last eight years of living completely on my own has been a revelation in terms of work. A lot of people would find this sudden pressure rather bewildering at this age. But for me it’s as if, in some ways, I’ve come home.
INT: Yuko, you’ve been illustrating commercially for over 20 years now. What are the differences in how you make work now, in comparison to back then?
YS: My work has evolved as the world changes – if something new is happening to me, I’m not going to stop it. But also there are some things that don’t change. I grew up drawing from anime and manga and I hated it. I felt I needed to ditch all my experiences and draw and paint like Americans. I came to art school to be someone different and ended up realising I can’t use colours like Americans, I can’t see light and shadows like Americans, I can’t render like my classmates, but I was good at drawing with lines. Long story short, I still draw like 15-year-old me but with much more experience and confidence with what I can’t change.
“I think that as people get older, especially in their 20s, that value of collaboration kind of dissipates.”Milah Libin
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Yuko Shimizu: The Cat Man of Aleppo, published by Penguin Putnam (Copyright © Yuko Shimizu, 2020)
INT: Milah, you were working on newsletters and other projects at a young age. Can you feel a difference in your approach now?
ML: I think that when you’re kind of transitioning from a very young child into like a preteen, you’re looking at references and literally copying other drawings to understand how to make art through what you like, which I think is really interesting. Then you can really start developing your own style.
INT: Do you think the industry puts pressure on us to reach a certain milestone before 30?
ML: In some ways, yes. I am sure it depends on where you live, but in New York specifically there are moments where I, at only 30, feel ‘old’ or like I haven’t accomplished enough because I can’t live off of my work. I think that in New York City there’s a pressure to have some social and creative status at a very young age.
“If Orson Welles makes Citizen Kane, he’s not going to go on and on making Citizen Kanes.”Anne Rothenstein
INT: There’s a lot of studies around happiness and how age affects it – there is this contested notion floating about which suggests happiness is U-shaped, decreasing at midlife, for example. Do you think how old you are affects how creative you are?
AR:You cannot ignore that great creative work, maybe 50 per cent of the time, has come out of the young. But at the same time, I have a sneaking feeling that we have a finite amount of good work. So if Orson Welles makes Citizen Kane, he’s not going to go on and on making Citizen Kanes. But I do think your creativity can come out later. On the whole, I think the young have incredible, daring creativity, because they think they’re the greatest people in the world.
YS: I think we maybe put creativity on a pedestal too much. Everyone’s creative. If you are a stay-at-home mum and you have to cook something and there’s a blizzard outside you become creative. Maybe young people can create something fresh and new that I can’t. But we have life experience to put in work that they don’t. So it’s not, ‘which is better or worse?’ Each of us has our own strengths.
ML: I do think there is a connection between very young artists, who are maybe under ten, and ‘older’ artists who are 65+ in the sense that there is less anxiety about what other people think. There is more freedom and connection with the self. Although with young kids, it’s more about discovery of all things – tasting new flavours, feeling deeply sad, or filled with joy, learning how to tell time. These concepts aren’t as present later in life, and we don’t have the same ease when accessing curiosity.
INT:And what about those who feel pressure to be a master of their practice by a certain age. Yuko, Anne, do you have any advice to people who want to take up art later in life?
AN: I would just say it’s got to start with your own real pleasure of holding pens, then it carries you. I mean, one of the things about this happening in old age is that I have something so wonderful to do with my days, compared to some of my friends who are getting a bit bored and creaky.
YS: You’re not gonna get younger. So if you have something you really want to do, do it. And we all suck at things but if you enjoy it, that’s the most important thing. I started learning Spanish less than a year ago. I still suck but I was never able to compose Spanish sentences. Now, I can text my Mexican friend in very simple Spanish sentences and I’m so happy that I’m making this progress. I was able to talk to a street vendor in Spanish the other day, and they didn’t answer me back in English. So if there’s something you’re interested in, the earliest we can start is now.
ML: I feel very inspired. It’s really powerful to know that in ten years, my whole life could change and that you don’t have to be tied to one career for your entire life. I think it scares a lot of people. But I find it to be exciting and kind of reassuring, in a way things can always change.
Artwork by Paola Saliby
About the Author
Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating in Film from The University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, INDIE magazine and design studio Evermade.