We're riding in a limousine to the School of the Art Institute. Ninety-two-year-old Hilda Gorenstein sits behind me, pulling my shoulder belt so tight it feels like it's cutting into my collarbone. She's trying to stand.
"She said she wanted to go dancing today," says Paul Rydz, who is driving.
"I don't," Hilda says.
"Sit down," commands Johnnie Jones, Hilda's private-duty nurse. "You have to sit down."
The tension on my shoulder eases a bit. "Chicago Sun-Times," Hilda says. We're at a stoplight; on the corner stands a Sun-Times box.
"Hilda, do you know this piece?" Paul asks, referring to the classical music wafting from the radio. Hilda doesn't say anything. She's trying to stand again.
"She's getting quite a workout," Johnnie says.
"Are you doing pull-ups, Hilda?" asks Robin Barcus.
"That will help with the painting," Paul quips.
Hilda graduated from the School of the Art Institute sometime in the late 1920s or early '30s--when exactly is not clear. She specialized in marine painting, and in the 1930s the U.S. Navy commissioned her to paint naval history scenes that were shown at the Century of Progress Exposition. Her resume says she's had exhibitions as far away as London and that her paintings and sculptures are in collections in Sweden, Denmark, Israel, and France. She signed her work as "Hilgos," a combination of her first and last names. She wanted her gender to be a mystery so she would have more professional opportunities. Today her work is simple and abstract and she sometimes neglects to sign it. She suffers from severe memory loss that could be Alzheimer's.
The problem surfaced more than eight years ago. Hilda's daughter, Berna Gorenstein-Huebner, noticed that her mother's memory worsened as she painted less. Berna, who lives in Paris, started sending her mother photographs to paint from. That worked for a while, but then Hilda stopped painting those unless her husband urged her to. About a year before he died, Berna decided to take a different tack.
"About two years ago, I was talking to my mother's doctor and I said, 'Mom told me she remembers better when she paints.' And the doctor said, 'Why don't you go to the Art Institute and put up an ad at the art school?' So I did." Berna eventually hired four young artists who help and encourage Hilda to paint. One is with her almost every day. Robin Barcus, 25, signed on in August.
"Hillie, would you like to paint?" Robin asks.
Robin points to a table. "Should we go over there?"
"Do you want to walk or should I push your chair?"
"What colors should we start off with?"
"Quick, quick," Hilda says.
"I wish Jenny Sheppard were here," Robin tells me. "She's been working with Hilda for the longest. She has some interesting ideas on what 'quick' is. Hilda says it constantly. One of Jenny's thoughts is that it's a word that gets you from one moment to another."
Robin gestures toward a watercolor pad. "We have some brand-new paper for you," she tells Hilda, pointing to a spot on the pad. "Want to put something over here?"
"Quick, Berna," Hilda says, confusing Robin with her daughter. Robin hands Hilda a brush. Hilda makes deft strokes. She's drawing from a postcard picturing a mountain and flowers.
"That's a good start, Hilda," Robin assures her. Across the paper, Hilda paints a check-mark-shaped line. It's supposed to be the mountain range. "You can see how expertly she twists the brush up," Robin tells me. "She's had brushes in her hands for more than 75 years."
Hilda rises from her chair. Tim Daly, another young artist, asks, "Do you want to get up?"
"No," Hilda says. She continues to rise. Robin moves Hilda's chair over a couple of inches, helps her sit down, and pushes the art supplies in front of her. Over the course of an hour, Hilda repeatedly stands up and moves a couple of inches to her left. When she reaches the end of the table, she starts inching back to the right.
"Hilda!" Robin calls out suddenly. It looks like she's about to put the paintbrush in her mouth. "This way. Over here," Robin says, pointing to the watercolor pad. Hilda places the tip of the brush bristle near her cheek. "Wait, Hilda, that's paint. That's not good for your skin.
"I think a lot of times she has sense memories of putting on makeup," Robin says. "Most of the time she goes for her lips and her eyes. I first thought she wanted to eat this because she really gets into the tactile quality of her material. She gets into dipping her brush in the water and touching each of the colors."
Hilda leans over and plants a kiss on Robin's face. "Thank you," Robin says. "I'm going to give you one too."
Robin Barcus's "blind contour" portraits of Hilda (she sketches without looking at her paper), and recent paintings by Hilda herself, are on exhibit through March 29 at the Plum Line Gallery, 1503 Chicago Ave.
in Evanston. For more information call 847-328-7586. --Cheryl Ross
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Drawing from the "Hilda" series by Robin Barcus.