From the start, Donna Harlow Moraff wanted to be an artist. But like many other baby boomers, Moraff had parents with more "practical" ideas. "Learn to type, that's how you make a living," her mother told her.
So Moraff put aside her dream and took the advice, carving out a career that eventually landed her a job as an administrative assistant at a Manhattan law firm. By the late 1970s, she and her husband, Paul, moved to Long Island, and for 13 years, she boarded the LIRR daily to work in the city.
She satisfied some of her creative urges by designing and making her own clothes, but the desire to be an artist never waned. Whenever she had free time, she found herself sketching, always sketching. Sometimes, she says, it was easier to draw what she had in mind, rather than using a lot of words to explain what she wanted or how something should work.
Always, her drawings were highly praised. "My husband told me how fantastic I was, like every good husband should," says Moraff, 68, who lives in West Islip. When she stopped working in the city, her husband pushed her to take the art lessons she'd talked about for so long. But she was afraid too many years had passed and that she wouldn't be good enough, she says. So she found excuses to avoid the classes. "I think many artists put off exercising their gifts because they're afraid," she says.
But her husband's persistence was wearing her down, and then he finally took charge. Her last excuse was that the class was at night, and she didn't like driving in the dark, she says. So he drove her there. Now, almost 20 years later, Moraff is a professional artist and instructor who encourages others to nurture their creative side.
"I would say to people who have a hankering, do it," she says. "If you have a gift for it, you must use it. You can't take it to the grave. And you don't know if you don't try."
While there are no statistics on the number of artists like Moraff who take up painting or other arts later in life, experts say there's a growing desire for information about how to express their creativity.
"We see evidence of more art classes for adults being formed in museums, community arts centers, community colleges, senior centers, even libraries," says Gay Hanna, executive director of the National Center for Creative Aging in Washington, D.C. The center is a nonprofit organization, affiliated with The George Washington University School of Medicine & Health Sciences, designed to promote creative arts programs for seniors.
Some of Long Island's most accomplished later-in-life artists exhibited their work earlier this year at "Art After Dark," a showcase of older-adult talent presented by the Art League of Long Island in Dix Hills.
John P. Cardone, 65, studied photography as a graduate student in communications at New York Institute of Technology. But, he says, "I never had subjects that caught my interest."
That changed 12 years ago, when a friend took him kayaking around Orient Point. "I fell in love with the sport" and found his muse, he says. "I started taking pictures, at first to show friends and family what I was experiencing. . . . It's a very challenging type of photography," says Cardone, who owns a video-production company. "The trick is being able to hold the camera steady enough while you're in a kayak and you've got the current."
The images he exhibited at the Art League's show were captured on a Nikon Coolpix P510. His collection of photos led to a self-published paperback book, "Waterviews: A Collection of Photographs, Thoughts, & Experiences," which chronicles his sojourns through the waterways of Long Island.
"When you're seeing nature at its finest, when you're so close in these quiet, backwater areas of Long Island and it's so peaceful, you can't help but think about how lucky you are," says Cardone, who lives in Ronkonkoma and has four grandchildren.
When she was younger, Susan Broderick, 68, of Selden, was drawn to the decorative ceramic pieces in her grandmother's New Rochelle home. "I always loved pottery, loved seeing work done by hand," she says. "I'd look at it and touch it and say . . . 'Somebody made it with their hands!' "
A former medical technician and hair stylist, she started creating pottery in the 1990s, first studying under potter Randy Blume, and soon, her own pieces were drawing notice. Broderick's work has been displayed at Lincoln Center, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, in galleries in the city, on Long Island and throughout the metropolitan area. She and her husband, Bob, built a business around her work.
'Yeah, I'm going to do it'
But in 2010, when her son Christopher died after an illness, she was too depressed to continue her art. "My life stopped," Broderick says. Her turning point came November, when the Long Island Crafts Guild invited her to participate in a holiday show. "I had a lot of inventory, so I said, 'Yeah, I'm going to do it,' and it was really nice to be there with other artists and people, talking about our work," says Broderick, a grandmother of three.
The experience rekindled Broderick's artisan core and she's now creating again, with the acceptance that the clay she shapes on her wheel isn't necessarily what will emerge from the kiln. "You do the best you can and then you say, 'It's no longer in my control; it's up to the kiln gods," she says, laughing. "Yes, it's a good metaphor for life."
No matter what the age or art form, Moraff, Cardone and Broderick agree that finding a creative outlet can enrich the lives of those who try something new or challenging. And, Moraff says, it can be done for pure enjoyment. "You don't have to have talent," she says. "All you have to do is have a good time."
FINDING YOUR INNER ARTIST
Picking up a pen or a paintbrush at an older age is good for the brain as well as the soul.
"After age 60, the brain needs stimulation that requires novelty, complexity and problem solving to maximize neuron production," says psychologist Francine Toder, author of "The Vintage Years: Finding the Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty."
That aging brain can also be an advantage to the artist. "When you're 20, you think you know everything," she says. "When you're 60, you realize you don't. And you can access that wisdom, the pathos, the learning, all of the depth and richness of life, when you start as an artist at an older age."
Toder, a professor emeritus at California State University-Sacramento, offers these tips for helping more mature adults find their inner artist:
Look back to childhood for clues to determine how you might have expressed yourself. Were you a storyteller (the forerunner to writing)? A pots-and-pans drummer (musician)? Or a stick-in-the-dirt artist (painter, sculptor)?
How do you spend your time now? Do you gravitate to art shows? Concerts? Libraries?
Does any unfinished business from earlier years involve an art form you wished you had pursued earlier?
Take a shot at any art form and see where it leads. Try watercolor painting; it may prove a perfect fit. Or it may lead you to pastels, oil painting or even a three-dimensional way of expressing yourself, such as ceramics.
This could be the perfect time for exploring new forms of creative expression. If it helps, find a buddy who shares your interest and get started.