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Rare Spirits: A Personal Tribute to Vintage Elders


In 1996, artist Jerry Grey began experimenting with the use of pastels as a medium to portray the character of elderly people who, despite the debilities of age, remain fully engaged in the business of living. Initially, it was a personal involvement that prompted her to express through portraiture the qualities she saw and admired. By the winter of 1998 she had decided to undertake a larger-scale project involving a wide variety of subjects - people with whom she has an active relationship, and whom she esteems both for their past accomplishments and their continued productivity in the face of physical limitations.

She also began to conceive of the project in a broader sense, as one that addressed a universal theme through individual life experiences. From its inception as a series of drawings, the project has expanded to include various collaborators. The Council for the Arts in Ottawa has become a principal sponsor. ManuLife Financial, The Minto Foundation and the Community Foundation of Ottawa generously provided financial support. Numerous individuals and supporters gave of their time and talents to assist with the realization of the project.

The end result of this initiative is an exhibition intended for galleries, including 30 portraits of fifteen subjects, with accompanying text and taped material. The project was completed in the fall of 2000, and the inaugural exhibition opened at the Ottawa Art Gallery on December 7, 2000.

Project Description

This project is comprised of three elements: a series of colour and black and white portraits for exhibition; an audiotape of the subjects reflecting on their experience; and a series of written profiles. These three components have been integrated as an installation designed to tour Canadian public galleries.

The project serves at once to celebrate the lives of some exceptional people and to illuminate the different aspects of their character. Pastel has been chosen because it captures particularly well the character in the faces, and gives a greater sense of their humanity than other media.

Each person is represented by two separate images, one in black and white, the other in colour. The black and white drawings project strength and establish the timeless authority of the documentary image. They are also a kind of visual metaphor for the treatment older people receive in our society, forcing us to confront issues about aging most of us would rather ignore: the fear of isolation, of losing hold, of being infantilized and treated with condescension. The colour pastels give a sense of the personalities and enduring qualities that the process of living has imparted like so many layers and hues.

The audiotape and written profiles are based on interviews with the subjects and research of existing records.

The original works are 65 cm (25.5 inches) high, 50 cm (19.75 inches) wide, Sennelier pastels on La Carte Board.