Going Gray / by Joan Chamberlain

Still smiling after "going gray".

Roughly 18 months ago, I decided to let my natural hair color grow out. I had experimented with omitting a band of hair around my hairline each time I applied Clairol's Natural Medium Auburn to my roots. I wanted to see exactly how much gray I had. When I realized that my untreated hair was 75% white, I decided that I liked that and would stop coloring it. I was almost 60 years old at the time and beginning to feel a certain liberation, maybe even a touch of rebellion, from societal expectations. My partner, Roger, was completely on board with my decision.

Afraid of looking like a prison inmate while the roots grew out, I appealed to my hairdresser to ease the transition. She high-lighted and low-lighted my hair with her expert touch, and I was on my way. Since my hair is shoulder length, it took several cuttings and colorings to eliminate the fading auburn color. Now that my hair is almost 100% natural, it's evident that it's mostly salt around my face, and mostly pepper from the crown back. I love it and I'm happy that I chose to face my age with loving eyes.

Reactions from other people have been immensely interesting. There are the women, mostly my age, who smile broadly when they see me and celebrate my new look. Then there are those who fight back a look of mild horror, whom I believe truly can't comprehend why any woman would choose to look "older". And there are the men, who almost universally applaud my moxie.

So what, exactly, does all of this "going gray" have to do with art? I was returning from my first Surtex exhibit in 2015 (an annual trade show in NYC where artists show their art to manufacturers for licensing purposes) when a memory popped into my head. I recall, as a child, being fascinated with the drawings of the old masters - the studies they did of hands, feet, heads - as they prepared for a painting. Here, on a flight out of NYC, I wanted to draw studies of hands, like the old masters. Not for paintings, but just for themselves. Okay, wait a minute. You can't do that, you're doing this licensing thing - drawing intensely colorful images of beautiful fruits and vegetables, leaves and patterns - and now you want to do a 180° and start doing charcoal sketches of hands? Who wants to hang pictures of hands on their wall? Who wants a drawing of hands on their tableware? That's crazy talk.

Surtex 2015, showcasing images and designs for art licensing

Initially, I started exploring with charcoal on gray paper, applying orange or green or aubergine to a small portion of the composition, focusing on the feeling of discovery that I get in the garden, beyond the sheer delight of color. I started drawing hands, too. Chefs' hands, cooks' hands, baristas' hands. All the people who prepare our food, who fascinate me with their skill and technique. I want more hands to draw. More grays, more buffs, more black and whites. Less dazzle, more depth.

What does going gray have to do with my art? I'm coming home. To the artist I once was, fascinated by the simple elegance of charcoal sketches of rumpled cloth and the architecture of the human body. Emboldened by the face I see as the color drains from my hair. I've gone gray, but I'm becoming more vibrant and I'm making some of the most satisfying art of my life.