The following is an interview conducted by our first guest contributor, Romy Shiller.
ABOUT: Arleen Solomon Rotchin writes a blog called The Calla Lily Dialogues [http://www.thecallalilydialogues.com/]. In the blog she shares thoughts and stories about inspirational women who challenge society’s perception of retirement age. She loves writing. Since 2005 she has written three books: Sam’s Will (memoir), Zoo and The Duchess of Cypress.
Arleen says that she has evolved into a different version of her older self; “I love being a Calla Lily Woman flowering and carrying the spirit of youth into old age, never losing my enthusiasm.”
A CALLA LILY IS A SENSUAL FLOWER
A Calla Lily woman has a style that is ageless.
She is busy, unconventional, edgy, independent and intriguing.
She knows who she is, what she wants to say and doesn’t give a damn.
She carries the spirit of youth into old age and never loses her enthusiasm.
Her motto is:
Age only matters if you’re a cheese.
When I heard that Arleen was writing this blog, I instinctively knew that it was important – if not special. To give a voice to the most marginalized people in history – aging women – is extraordinary. Arleen manifests a unique vision – not unlike a photograph – which frames a personality, an era or a style. Arleen herself could be a subject in her blog. She is a unique and very stylish older woman. Arleen is striking and is quite tall sporting long white hair and can often be seen wearing jeans with holes in them and very high heels. Arleen wears sunglasses from the 70s and a black leather jacket painted by her granddaughter. She boycotts any expectation about age. Arleen is intelligent and witty. Arleen is gutsy and independent. I could call her inspirational, because she is.
I asked Arleen a few questions:
ROMY: First of all Arleen, I want to thank you for agreeing to do this interview.
What year did you start the blog? Why did you start it and why do you choose the women you do?
ARLEEN: The idea of the Calla Lily Dialogue project percolated in my mind for months after coming across Ari Seth Cohen’s Advance Style blog which quickly became a sensation for showcasing fashion’s most unjustly overlooked demographics: women over 60. I have been following Cohen since 2008, personally met him in 2012, bought his book and became his Facebook Friend.
Don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost of praise and admiration for the brainchild photographer whippersnapper Cohen (he is only in his 30’s) but I came to realize that my greater interest was sharing stories about inspirational women who challenge society’s perception of retirement age with a talent, tenacity and accomplishment rather than with an outrageous look of being a fashionable ageless icon.
My first blog post was on September 23, 2014 about Australian centenarian Olive Riley who 108 was the world’s oldest blogger.
What do you like about the profiles/women you write about?
I have ‘met’ many, many outstanding women. It has been a joy and privilege introducing them. So many of them open paths previously closed and unknown to women artists.
A favourite was 84-year old Faith Ringgold, artist who created vivid tales of a black woman living in America was best known for her painted quilted stories.
What don’t you like about the profiles/women you write about?
There is nothing I don't like about the women I write about. I hand pick each and every one to research and write about. Vicariously, I am them, might I add. I admire everything about them: Their tenacity, bravery, youthfulness, (they must all be over 70 years old in order for me to research them) talent, and their ability to defy the accepted customs/mores of society at the time, uniqueness.
There have been so many layers and levels to these women – which shift has made an impression on you?
I posted Grandmother Dialogues about my Grandma Fanny and me and it was a favourite amongst my readers.
I posted one of my favourite stories about women commercial airline pilots.
The Florence Holway Story: Rape in a Small Town about a 76-year old widow who was brutally assaulted for 4 hours in her own home and with her great determination and courage she changed both federal and state legislation for victims of rape.
Leila Denmark: The Longevity of a Legendary Doctor - the only woman in a class of 52 students. This Georgian pediatrician practiced until she was 109 years old.
I told the story of Maude Lewis who was born 1903 in rural Nova Scotia. She suffered from birth defects and became Canada’s most famous folk artist.
MAUDIE the film has just released in theatres and it is not to be missed.
These women are incredibly resilient and very strong, why do you think that they are mostly unknown?
The reason for that is because many were born in the 1800's and unless they were important like Lee Krasner or Frida Kahlo or an artist of that calibre the average person is only familiar with the others if they are art students and it part of their studies. Or, I suppose, if you frequent galleries. Artists were mostly part of a community in the old days and knew each other. They gravitated to certain parts of the world like Paris to be arty and hung out together.
In my case because I am a photographer I am familiar with many of the photographers I wrote about because I studied them.
Do you think that age and gender negatively impact these women?
Yes, yes, yes, gender and age did impact them negatively. One of the reasons the artist became so interesting to me when they were old women still working was because society never accepted them no matter how talented they were like the men and they only became successful when they were older women. Galleries would not show their work. Some even used initials rather than their names to hide their gender. I will tell you one thing about the women artists I researched, they loved men and romance and had many, so many, affairs during their lifetime I was amazed. They seemed to hop from bed to bed. I also found it fascinating that many of my women artists enjoyed both men and women. One woman I wrote about was a Mexican singer by the name of Chavela Vargas (she died at 93) who was one of Freda Kahlo's great lovers. As you probably know Kahlo was bisexual.
Romy, there are two women artists who are better known to us than others and I think I know why. One was Freda Kahlo who was married to the very well known and recognized artist Diego Rivera. And the other was Lee Krasner who was the wife of Jackson Pollock. Just thinking that because their husbands were so revered in the art world, perhaps they had an easier time being accepted than other women artists at the time.
Which one of your women would you like to sit down and talk to, and why?
I would LOVE to have lunch with two Ruths.
The first Ruth is Supreme Court Justice 84-year old Ruth Bader Ginsburg, legal pioneer who trail blazed her way during the 50s and 60s when women were just beginning to make their mark in male dominated professions. She is the second female justice to be confirmed who is still serving.
My second Ruth (1888-2000) Ruth Ellis, who lived to be 101, was America's oldest advocate of the rights of gays and lesbians and of African Americans. Her spirit continues to touch us today through the Ruth Ellis Center, a Detroit Youth Center transitional living and outreach program founded in 1999. Her story is courageous and riveting.
What would you like to say about your blog and the women you write about?
The Calla Lilies I profile are women I admire. They are survivors, unconventional, tenacious and youthful in spirit and enthusiasm in spite of their age. They were all women libbers way before the advent of Women's Liberation. I am fortunate to be 'meeting them' through my blog and learning their stories.
My passion for photography and my love of children have contributed to life exhilarating experiences.
I designed and introduced a Youth Photo Program at Dawson College, was a guest lecturer at Vanier College in the Special Care Counselling and Photography departments and was a panellist at an International Child-Youth Care Conference sitting beside an art therapist, a poetry therapist and a dance therapist. My topic was ‘the therapeutic value of photography for kids in care.’
Because there was no funding available, I had the luxury of volunteering my time implementing programs with the objective of introducing taking pictures as a therapeutic medium and teaching aid to 'my special children' with disabilities and autism. A specific technique I used with them was the Polaroid camera, and a favourite of mine, 'projectives' which is looking at pictures and talking about them.
I also introduced and mentored a photo-darkroom program as a catalyst for young offenders and youth protection kids in residential care to communicate with spontaneity in order to develop a sense of pride and self-esteem in a non-threatening way.
Wow, Romy...amazing exercise. Thank you. I have not visited these issues in years!
Thank YOU Arleen.
ROMY SHILLER is a pop culture critic and holds a PhD from the University of Toronto. Her academic areas of concentration include film, gender performance and critical thought. She lives in Montreal where she continues her writing. www.romyshiller.com