Terry Wolverton, Novelist, Poet
Aging in Place
I moved to Los Angeles in 1976 to join a community of feminist artists at the Woman’s Building. Los Angeles had not yet “arrived” as an arts capital or an economic powerhouse, and these conditions were ideal to foster something as subversive as a feminist art movement. In the COVID-19 crisis, while the internet and social media have become our town hall spaces, but virtual interaction does not foment the collaborative, productive and subversive actions of the past. How will creative elders retain their life in Los Angeles, and how will young people build communities that create transformation?
Terry Wolverton is author of eleven books of poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction, including Embers, a novel in poems, and Insurgent Muse: art and life at the Woman’s Building, a memoir. She has also edited fifteen literary compilations. Terry has received a COLA Fellowship from the City of Los Angeles and a Fellowship in Poetry from the California Arts Council, among other honors. She is the founder of Writers At Work, a creative writing studio in Los Angeles, and Affiliate Faculty in the MFA Writing Program at Antioch University Los Angeles.
Aging in Place
It was 1976. I was living in Detroit and the February dankness had sunk deep into my spirit, gray and chill. I was 21, but I already felt there was no place for me—a lesbian-feminist writer and performer—in the world. My friend, Mary, weary of my despair, pushed a strip of paper toward me across the coffee shop table. Mary was waitressing in a Chinese restaurant, and she’d lettered the strip to look like a fortune cookie. In her neat handwriting, I read: The will feeds on enormous vistas. Deprived on them, it collapses.¹ It would be Mary who would find me when, a few months later, I swallowed a bottle of sedatives, unable to see, in the flat Midwestern landscape, that vast panorama, a vision for how to fulfill my destiny.
Three months after that, I was on a plane to Los Angeles, a city I had never visited and in which I knew no one. The vista Mary’s fortune had foretold had appeared when I read about the Woman’s Building, “a public center for women’s culture.” It was as if my hunger had conjured it: an edifice where women were acknowledged to be artists, where our lives might be seen as appropriate content for creative work. It was an impulsive move to leap so far with no certain footing when I arrived, but I was sure I would die if I remained where I was.
The Los Angeles of the mid-1970s was not the Los Angeles of today. One could drive from downtown to the ocean in 20 minutes. The city was not yet an economic powerhouse nor, Hollywood notwithstanding, an international art center. Yet the city was founded on a sense of risk-taking and possibility; no dream was too crackpot to not pursue. These were the factors—along with a feminist movement that was igniting and that fact that rent was affordable to those willing to venture into a semi-deserted urban core—that made the Woman’s Building possible.
Painters and sculptors, performers and video artists, writers, arts educators and architects from across the city and around the world were drawn to the “enormous vista” offered by The Woman’s Building. Its mission and programs offered permission, support and community. So many women artists had, like me, felt isolated, had been made to feel “wrong” for daring to imagine ourselves the shapers of culture. Within the walls of the physical structure, but also within the vision it made manifest, we felt less strange and less alone. We grew more bold, daring to take on and talk back to systems that elevated men’s interests above women’s.
A performance art group known as the Waitresses performed in restaurants and other public places to raise awareness of issues of working women. The collective Mother Art supported women who were raising children to continue to pursue their artistic careers. Sisters of Survival, who wore nun’s habits the colors of the rainbow, protested nuclear proliferation. Ariadne: a Social Art Network² created large scale social actions to end violence against women. The Lesbian Art Project provided visibility, opportunity and critical dialogue for lesbian artists. The vista of the Woman’s Building was expansive enough to accommodate the visions of thousands of artists, and together we constituted a community of imagination, guided by a movement toward change.
It’s 2020. I was already perturbed about the ways Los Angeles is changing, even before pandemic struck.
L.A. is now a world arts capital, meaning money and reputation are the reigning values (Surprise! Women do not fit into this hierarchy.)
Gentrification makes entire neighborhoods unrecognizable, including the one the Woman’s Building used to occupy. Skyrocketing rents mean there are fewer places to congregate; organizations have shuttered.
The divide between the well-off and those who struggle with basic survival has become an impossible breach, sidewalks and underpasses crowded with those who have no home.
Metastasizing traffic makes us think twice before travelling cross-town to experience art or connect with friends. Transportation alternatives—bike lanes, rental scooters—favor the youthful and fit.
Internet and social media have become our town hall spaces, but I haven’t seen that virtual interface build bonds in the same way as physical interaction; how will it foment collaborative, productive and subversive actions, so needed to address these times?
I had already been wondering how creative elders can retain our lives in Los Angeles in the face of such changes.
Now as I write, Los Angeles, like many parts of the world, is under lockdown because of the novel coronavirus. We have been ordered to stay home, to maintain social distance so as not to infect one another. Art centers, businesses, restaurants, even beaches and parks are closed. I support the science behind it, but I’m bewildered to find myself at 65 in a protected class—"the elderly”—presumed to be more vulnerable, requiring sequestration, needing special hours at the grocery store. I can’t relate to it; I feel as vital and feisty as ever. Women know that such paternalistic “protection” can also be a means of limiting our participation, diminishing the value of our contributions.
It’s hard to perceive “enormous vistas” at a time when I rarely leave my yard. Perhaps we’re meant to journey inward at this time, but not for too long. The pandemic shows us how many aspects of our society are urgently in need of re-invention toward justice.
These days I connect with my artist and activist communities via Zoom and FaceTime and Facebook. I hope these tools will be enough to keep us bonded, to keep the flame of inspiration and the passion for change ignited. We will need vision and artistry and inclusivity to imagine our city and our world beyond this time, and, no matter my age, I’m committed to ensuring that all people have a place in creating that transformation.
1. Colin Wilson, The Philosopher’s Stone
2. Founded by Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz-Staurus.