Between the Lines: Celebrating Storied Lives

Robert Michon | Communications Specialist, ARTA

Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward.
- Søren Kierkegaard

Looking back, as many poets and philosophers over the centuries have observed, our lives consist mainly of stories. The stories we tell shape how others see us, as well as how we see ourselves. It stands to reason that the older we get, the more stories we accumulate, and the richer the tapestry of our lives will become. But in reality, as people get older, many lose sight of that, and it can take a gentle reminder to realize that, like a fine wine, we get better with age.

Mary Whale is a retired gerontological nurse who spent much of her career caring for older adults of various ages. In addition to her nursing career, Mary has always been passionate about the arts, and about visual art in particular.

In geriatric rehabilitation wards, there are many quiet hours filled with rest and recovery, so in her own time, Mary began to draw her patients. “Nobody ever bothered us,” she says, thinking back on that time. “Those sessions quickly became a kind of sacred space filled with trust and honesty. People started telling me their stories as I drew, and those stories began to influence how I portrayed them. I knew I wanted to record these stories, but I didn’t feel I had the means to do it right.”

In retirement, Mary was finally able to pursue that goal. She received a grant from the Edmonton Arts Council to paint the portraits of older adults in the community, to document their stories, and to share her findings with the greater public. The project, called Between the Lines, included twenty-one subjects (called sitters), mostly aged 80 and older, but with diverse backgrounds. Just as she did when she was a nurse, she spoke with her sitters as she sketched, and stories naturally emerged to fill the time. Only now, the stories were recorded with help from a writer, her partner in the project, Laurel Sproule.

“I just let the conversation flow naturally,” Mary says. “I asked some questions when I was curious, but I mainly let them follow their own thoughts, and stories emerged on their own.” Even in that unstructured setting, Mary noticed certain trends and commonalities emerging between different sitters.

“I found that, particularly the 80-plus age group, there was a lot of internalized ageism,” Mary says. “My theory is that in the era they lived and worked in, society emphasized independence and economic contributions. Once they leave that stage of life behind, once they lose some of that independence, it can take a negative toll on their self-perception.”

There is a disconnect, Mary thinks, between how we think of older adults and the reality of how they live their lives. “The number of older adults in care facilities is between six to ten per cent,” she says. “But despite that, a recent study from the University of Ottawa showed that our society’s primary perception of seniors is that of vulnerability. That view is even prevalent among seniors themselves, and that’s the kind of thinking I want to dispel.”

Through her project, Mary hopes to demonstrate to the public that older adults of all ages are amazing people with grand accomplishments, who still contribute plenty of value to their communities. Her sitters were not outliers from the norm; they were just regular people who all had incredible stories to tell.

The feedback Mary got from her twenty-one sitters was overwhelmingly positive, though she did experience some pushback from a few who felt that her portrayal did not resonate with them — that her painting made them look old.

“It’s common that we don’t want to see ourselves as old,” Mary says. “Our society is so youth-oriented that we learn to resent aging itself. But it’s important for people to realize who they are at this point in their lives. I like to think of myself as a combination of everyone I’ve ever been. When I look in the mirror, I try to see it all — a mom, a nurse, an artist. You can access those different selves at any time and celebrate them. You’re still the people you were and newer versions as well. That mindset feels a lot better than becoming depressed because staring back from the mirror is old.”

Mary’s exhibit, with all her paintings and their accompanying stories, can be viewed for free at the Harcourt House in Edmonton from September 22 to October 1, ending, appropriately, on the International Day of Older Persons. Alternatively, a digital version of the stories is available on Mary’s blog,