Folk Art and Aging Book

Folk Art and Aging: Life-story Objects and Their Makers explores the memory-art projects of elders. Whether painting pictures of past events, woodburning important names and places onto a walking stick, or artfully arranging family photographs, life-story objects often anticipate social interactions and narrative encounters. However, to reduce memory paintings, story quilts, and other forms of life-story objects to mere works of art or storytelling props fails to appreciate the complex and diverse nature of these curious creations and the process that brought them into existence. These objects serve multiple functions in the lives of the elderly: they are objects to reflect upon; props for explaining events and their meanings; the product of a pastime that fills the lonely hours; mnemonic devices to remind the forgetful; a meditative practice that helps seniors make sense of the past; and a material legacy to leave to family and friends.

Through the work of five elders living in Indiana, this book examines the ways elders contemplate, make, display, and narrate their life-story objects. Readers will come to know Bob Taylor a retired pattern-maker and memory carver; Gustav Potthoff, a painter and survivor of the death camps of Burma-Thailand; Marian Sykes, a rug maker and retired working-mother; John Schoolman, a prolific walking stick maker and hiker; and Milan Opacich, a Serbian-American instrument maker and storyteller. Each of these artists will teach us how their creative work assists them in making sense of their lives, connecting with others, forging a new identity in their later years, and making commentary of the changing world around them.

Elmer Schlenker’s Brooms

Elmer Schlensker making a broom on the same machine his father used.

One of the artists, I mention in passing in my book is Elmer Schlensker, who was a fourth generation broom maker from Milltown, Indiana. As a child he helped his father by sewing or stitching brooms together. However, Elmer had never made a complete broom, until the coordinator at the Lanesville Festival approached him about demonstrating at her event. After much encouragement, Elmer went home and took several of his father’s old brooms apart to remind him how they were made. Through trial and error, he taught himself to make brooms. Broom making became an important part of his retirement identity. Making brooms allowed him to stay active, make meaningful connections with family and friends, while providing him with an opportunity to tell others about his father and his life growing up in Southern Indiana.