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Giving Age the Ax

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Seated in a padded metal chair, the woman on the videotape strums downward on a white electric guitar, slowly, on every beat, eliciting a sound that echoes around the room. Another seated woman joins in tentatively with her guitar, playing a similarly odd chord. Both concentrate on a fragile, rudimentary rhythm, which only seconds later collapses. Then, with some encouraging words from a youthful voice off-camera, they begin again. Ching. Ching. Ching.

The electric guitar, says artist Jenny Graf Sheppard, is by and large "a male-, youth-, pop-dominated object." But her current endeavor, "The Guitars Project," puts the six-strings in very different hands. Twice a week from January to mid-May of this year, Sheppard led a group of women in their 70s and 80s in improvisation. The core members of her ensemble--Lodelin, Minna, Eleanor, Marion, Alice, and Carolyn--are all regular visitors to the Council for Jewish Elderly's Adult Day Services Center in Evanston. Typical events at the center include field trips, dancing, or strolls around a secure area. But for those five months, "Jenny--Guitars" was a highlighted event on the dry-erase board.

Physically, the half dozen seated players holding an assortment of guitars vaguely resemble something Glenn Branca might have thought up, but Sheppard's project has another, less visible layer--at least a few ensemble regulars have Alzheimer's. "I was interested," explains Sheppard, "in inserting older people with memory problems into a situation where that person has agency."

The Guitars Project weaves together Sheppard's long-term interests in art that explores the creative aptitudes of the elderly and in improvised experimental music. Her father was an eminent gerontologist who worked with labor unions and employers on age issues and researched the societal effects of aging. "I had one of those dads," says Sheppard, "who would bring me along and say, 'What do you think?'" Over the years, Sheppard did her own homework on the subject, and found one book, Heidi Ehrenberger Hamilton's Conversations With an Alzheimer's Patient: An Interactional Sociolinguistic Study, particularly illuminating. Conversations is unusual, says Sheppard, in that it explains the logic and structure behind how people with Alzheimer's express themselves.

At Hampshire College, where Sheppard studied film, video, and installation art, her thesis was a piece that incorporated audio and video footage of three elderly women in a nursing home. For another project she worked with Hilda Gorenstein--aka "Hilgos"--a painter and 1923 School of the Art Institute graduate then in her 90s and in a nursing home suffering from extreme memory loss. Sheppard visited and worked with the painter, ultimately mounting Hilgos-related shows featuring her own work together with Gorenstein's drawings and paintings at nursing homes and senior centers in Chicago, at SAIC, and at a New York gallery.

Since getting her MA from SAIC in 1998, she's taught there and at UIC, and played guitar with two of the more out-there underground bands in Chicago: the enshrouded Bride of No No and the improvisational, dark-wave Metalux. In the last couple years she's shown only one art piece, a motion-detecting sound-and-black-light installation called "reflex lux." "I wanted to do a project like this," she says. "But being in two bands and working, I hadn't made the time until this last semester."

Sheppard's avant-leaning musical endeavors directly inform the project. "It is really related," she says. "With Metalux, there was a similar idea in picking up the guitar and thinking, 'How am I going to interact with this object?' In Metalux, there's tension between us and our instruments. We use them, but we're alienated from them." With the CJE ensemble, Sheppard says, "we had to accept all the range of emotions they had with the instrument." This, she admits, is another way of saying, "We don't focus on the fact that you are just dusting around the strings" but concentrate rather on group participation.

Over the five months of the project, Sheppard recorded portions of the rehearsals on a portable four-track or videotaped them. Her intention all along has been to remix the material as an audio piece--she's currently working in residence at the Experimental Sound Studio to produce something from the raw rehearsal recordings--and a more finished video installation will also likely emerge from the material.

In July Sheppard showed four studio-quality color portraits of the women taken by Saverio Truglia and a nine-minute video piece in the "Synesthesia" show at Carrie Secrist Gallery, which is up through August 31. Truglia's photos are disarming--as comic as they are sweet, highlighting the incongruity between the elderly women and their electric guitars. Conversely, says Sheppard, "the video is about focusing on moments of action, something dynamic, even when somebody mistakenly plucks two strings." She loops small sections of the rehearsal footage to concentrate on the interaction between the women.

Only one of the players is an experienced musician: Eleanor, 88, was trained on piano and violin, and was once the organist at a suburban temple. And except for some valiant attempts by Eleanor--a naturally charismatic leader--to organize the ladies around her clapped-out tempo, the ensemble plays like thorough novices. Meeting three of the guitarists after a session, as they view their portraits for the first time, it's clear that they have their own theories about the project. "I don't play the guitar," says Minna upon being told she's been doing just that twice a week for several months. But the subject of music elicits vivid memories: Lodelin recounts decades of singing "sacred music" with her husband; Minna wishes her eldest son--"an expert in stringed instruments"--were around; Eleanor authoritatively announces that she's always preferred classical guitar.

The women are clearly enamored of Sheppard and thrilled to be involved in something so different from their regular routine. They have a barrage of questions for her--about her life and about the project. "Did it accomplish for you what you wanted it to?" they ask. She nods. "Some really beautiful sounds came out of it."

"At our age," says Minna, "I think to start something we've never done before is a good thing."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Saverio Truglia.

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