By Emily Erickson
Elaine Amsterdam was standing on her porch smoking a Marlboro black cigarette in a long, flowy nightgown and a scarf draped asymmetrically across her petite shoulders. At 93 years old and barely 5 feet tall she looked positively fabulous.
I found out about Elaine through a regular bar patron of mine who encouraged me to simply sit with her for an evening over a glass or two of scotch, promising I’d have more than enough material to fuel the 700-plus words of this column.
And let me tell you, readers, was this trusty bar patron ever right.
I creaked up the stairs toward Elaine’s silhouette, gripping my weather-worn notepad tightly in anticipation. After gently reminding her why I was visiting (Elaine experiences short-term memory loss), we stepped into the light of her living room.
As I looked around her home, my heart began pounding in the way it does when you know you’re in the midst of something profound. Hanging proudly on every wall in Elaine’s living room was incredible artwork; Elaine’s artwork.
Elaine is a world-renowned artist and teacher, specializing in watercolor, charcoal, and encaustic (wax-based) painting, with her pieces having been exhibited at the U.S. Embassy in Athens, at the Westminster Gallery in London, and within her complete collection at the Pepperdine University library in Malibu.
Needless to say, her work was really, really good.
Pulling myself out of awe-inspired contemplativeness, I locked eyes with Elaine for the first time since being under the light of her living room. She was looking at me with intensity, in a way that I was sure meant she was studying my face, accounting for the shadows, for how the glow of the lamp was hitting my messy bun, or for how my mouth was turned upward in a combination of nervousness and excitement.
“What is that piece of hair doing in your face? Move that over. Is that in fashion these days?” Elaine said with both gumption and kindness. My hair was windblown from my bike ride hours before our meeting. Shit.
This was the first of many quotes from Elaine that I would reflect upon in either laughter or admiration. But because the evening was too full of warm and inspiring conversation for a single column, I’d like to just share the two quotes of Elaine’s, and their context, that I found most significant.
The first quote was in the middle of a conversation about Elaine’s teaching method and philosophy. I posed the question of whether or not she thought anyone could be an artist with proper training and consistent practice, or if there was a part of art, perhaps creativity, that was innate; to which some people are simply more predisposed.
This prompted Elaine to describe creativity like a crack in a doorway, with the sliver of light beaming through the crack looking different to each person. “To some people,” Elaine described, “creativity looks like navigating a relationship well or by seeing buildings by all the parts they’re made up of.” She explained, the more people pursue the light of their creativity, their door continues to open, letting in more and more light. Through practicing creativity, it becomes a bigger and bigger our lives and perspectives.
“When teaching art students,” she continued, “the first thing I would do is teach them how to see. Because when you look at things, really taking the time to see them in their entirety, you learn to look at them with love.”
Taking time to practice creativity in whatever way makes sense to us, and learning to look at our worlds, even at things we consider mundane, with the eye of an artist, through the lens of love, is a noteworthy endeavor, and certainly one worth pursuing.
The final quote with which I’ll leave you was a message that Elaine repeated several times. It was one that had guided her life, and that she wanted to make sure she shared as a token of genuine advice from someone who considers herself having a life well lived.
We were talking about gratitude. She was describing the importance of being grateful for your life, for the moment you’re in, even if it doesn’t look like what you expected it to be. Because loving your life, whatever it looks like, is the key to happiness.
“But most importantly,” she shared, “remember to treat yourself like you’d treat someone you love and cherish dearly.” Her most prized piece of wisdom was about making choices out of self-respect, of self-care, and of understanding that you are the most worthy person on earth of receiving your own love.
And those messages, my friends, were far more powerful than the morning pangs of a scotch-induced headache that followed my evening drinking with Elaine.
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