How I Became an Artist in My Sixties

A longtime journalist pursues visual art later in life and discovers a rich community of New Jersey creatives.

Illustration of three artists holding up an artist who's sprawled out on a cobalt-blue tube of paint and holding a book titled "History of Art"

Illustration: Debbie Galant

Six years ago, on my 62nd birthday, we were having friends over for brunch when my friend Noel, a recently retired physician, pulled out his phone and started showing photos of his new oil paintings. I’d had no idea he was painting, let alone doing it so well. We were all oohing and aahing when my son turned to me and said, “Mom, I’ve never seen you look so jealous in my entire life.”

Rarely does life give you such clear signals. For many decades, I’d been a writer. But after that birthday, I turned to art and began to see the world in such a different way, I barely understood it myself.

Noel was my first art friend. He cheered me on, introduced me to titanium buff and Payne’s grey and praised my work. (One thing artists and writers have in common: Praise is our oxygen.) But the most important thing he shared was his art friends. When he invited me into his critique group, I met the people who would become my lion, scarecrow, woodman and Glinda as I navigated a new beginning I was, arguably, too old for.

Of course, over the years, I’d developed a nice cadre of writing buddies. I clearly remember going to a reading in 2003 at Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, the epicenter of writing life in this neck of the woods, and discovering that someone I knew, if only slightly, had written and published a novel. Though I’d been a journalist for years, fiction—my true love—felt unattainable. Suddenly, I was walking through the looking glass and beginning to flex my literary imagination.

But I’ve discovered these past six years that New Jersey is brimming with visual artists, too. My art friends have now begun to outnumber my writer friends. I’ve met them in classes, on urban sketching expeditions, and, mostly, through my critique group.

The biggest art event in my local universe is the annual Open Studios at Manufacturers Village in Orange. Originally built as a factory in the 1880s, Manufacturers Village is a jumble of brick walls and iron catwalks that provides studio space for 55 artists. Every October, thousands of visitors descend on the complex to see the paint-splattered spaces where art is made and to buy directly from the people who make it.

I’d been going to the event for years, but after becoming an artist, it was a different experience. I began to know a few people exhibiting. Then came more connections.

During the pandemic, an art friend was looking for a studio. When I heard that another artist friend needed to relinquish hers, I matched them up. Another year, I met an artist whose eyes went wide when I mentioned that I belonged to a critique group. She joined, we became friends, and this winter, she helped me get a show with a respected New Jersey gallery.

And this past year at Manufacturers Village, I could barely walk 10 feet without running into someone I knew. I didn’t get to see all the art I wanted to, or to buy something I really loved, but I discovered something even better: I belonged.

Debbie Galant has an art studio in Clifton and welcomes visitors.

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