Defying age: Denver’s ’80 Something’ art exhibition celebrates creative longevity

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The artist reception for the ’80 Something’ art show at Denver’s Niza Knoll Gallery, May 26, 2024.

In the heart of Denver's Santa Fe Art District, the latest exhibition at the Niza Knoll Gallery challenges conventional notions of aging and celebrates the enduring power of artistic expression. 

Titled "80 Something," this vibrant, and diverse show features the work of seven contemporary artists in their ninth decade and beyond.

“I turned 81 in February, and I knew quite a few artists that were in their eighties and producing amazing work. I want people to know that we're around and we are still doing art," said gallery owner and co-curator Niza Knoll.

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Gallery owner Niza Knoll at the artist reception for the '80 Something' show, May 26, 2024.

Knoll developed the "80 Something" show with Damon McLeese, executive director of the nearby Access Gallery, a nonprofit focused on increasing access to the arts, and the arts marketplace, for people with disabilities. 

McLeese emphasized that the featured artists are all professional, practicing creatives who continue to push boundaries and challenge themselves. 

"We have artists that have been doing art their entire life and artists that have come back into it as they've aged and retired or had a different chapter in their life," he said.

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As a ceramic artist, Macy Dorf has focused on functional works in recent years, so he said it's been a "treat" to get to show his sculptural work as part of "80 Something" exhibit at the Niza Knoll Gallery, May 26, 2024.

The art on display at the show is a testament to the lived experiences and perspectives of the artists, as well as the evolving nature of their creativity. Macy Dorf is a ceramic artist whose work has graced galleries and homes for decades, but she’s lately been focused mostly on production pottery. "It's a treat to show this work in a gallery because most people just know my functional work. They don't know me as my decorative pieces or sculptural pieces," Dorf said.

Essie Perlmutter, whose work spans various mediums, including oil, acrylic and charcoal, finds joy and purpose in her creative pursuits. Her current work features stylized renditions of concepts like love, loss, freedom, and activism.

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Artist Essie Perlmutter stands with her work in the '80 Something' show at Niza Knoll Gallery, May 26, 2024.

"It's really important to be around creative people," she said. " It really helps when you reach this age. It really keeps you alert and it keeps you current and it helps you make new friends and all the things that are positive in a somewhat negative world."

Leona Lazar, another ceramic sculptor, believes in the power of art to transcend stereotypes and inspire others. 

"I do a lot of social commentary... I feel very, very strongly about picking up the paper and seeing what I'm reading, knowing what's happening in our world," Lazar said, adding, "I feel very passionately, and I want to make a statement with my art. And so that's where I start. I start straight from my gut and my heart."

Lazar said it’s particularly important to counter society’s pervasive ageism and stereotypes of older people.

“As I look around at other artists in this show, and other artists I know who are 80-plus, it's very inspirational. I look at our energy and our creativity and how we have put our life experiences into what we're producing."

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Ceramic sculptor Leona Lazar with her work at the Niza Knoll Gallery, May 26, 2024. "I want to make a statement with my art," said Lazar. "I start straight from my gut and my heart."

Co-curator McLeese said there’s a stereotype that older artists just focus on pretty things, like painting landscapes and sunsets. And while he says there’s nothing wrong with that, he’d like to see more recognition of all the contemporary artists who continue to push the boundaries of their art forms even as they age. 

"The beauty of contemporary art is everybody interprets it differently and people are exploring different mediums. I think the idea of pushing back on assumptions about what older people might be interested in, or this idea that people aren't interested in learning new things, is maybe the throughline,” said McLeese. “Because these guys are always pushing themselves. They want to try new things, they want to try a different medium, and it's really interesting to see how the work changes and evolve."

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Works in the '80 Something' exhibition at Denver's Niza Knoll Gallery, May 26, 2024.

The artists in the “80 Something” show, with their unique voices and artistic expressions, invite viewers to reconsider their perceptions of aging and celebrate the richness and resilience of the human spirit. 

The show runs at the Niza Knoll Gallery from May 24 to June 23, and will be on view during the Santa Fe Art District’s First Friday Art Walk this week from 5 to 9 p.m.