Lessons from a Vancouver elder

91 year old BC artist Frankie defines a life well-lived


Mike RobinsonVANCOUVER, BC, Apr 6, 2014/ Troy Media/ – Longevity by itself isn’t enough. The life well-lived also has to possess meaning, give back to others, and attract positive attention. At 91, Frankie, christened Frances (but as a first-born socialized as a tomboy Frank), is active on all of the above files. Predeceased in 2006 by her husband of 58 years, she has since lived alone. During this time she has made dozens of new friends, some of them boyfriends, and increasingly defined herself through her art.

Frankie’s art is big, boldly acrylic in primary colours, and often focused on landscapes visible from her 11th floor apartment. Her canvases are rarely smaller than half a meter square, and most are double that size. They prominently display golds, oranges, reds, deep blues and pinks. The subject fields are often jumbled streets of churches, houses, trees and long views out to the coastal range and Vancouver’s outer harbour. Occasional forays into circus tents, winter forest landscapes, and singing choristers occur, but the urban built form dominates her oeuvre.

The physical work of preparing the canvases with white gesso, and layering on the bold acrylics is hard on her right arm. After a daily four-hour stint of painting, she will occasionally complain of pain – but never seeking pity. Her comments are much more matter-of-fact. “Gosh, my arm got sore painting today!” Those of us who have known her a long time also know another factor that contributes to her muscle weariness. Five years ago she tore her right rotator cuff climbing from a bouncing Zodiac raft in Hudson Bay up the shipside Jacob’s ladder to a waiting Russian ice-breaker. “How stupid of me! What was I thinking?”

Recently there have been annual sales of the big pictures, craftily organized around potluck dinners in her apartment building and family events. Lots of the work sells to young families who simply, “want a Frankie.” Typically, the sales proceeds get ploughed back into more paints, brushes and canvasses, and the cycle repeats again. Her grandchildren are now competing for “Granny Art,” and rivalries are kicked up over who gets “a really good one.”

There is also now journalism. Frankie writes for her apartment newspaper, mostly pieces about her early life connections with other artists, like Emily Carr (whom she nursed as a young RN student), and Lawren Harris, whose daughter she painted with as a young mother in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

One could think that she has always been an artist, but that would be mistaken. Depending on her mood, she will reveal that she also was, “a doctor’s wife,” an Instructor of Fine Art at UBC, and for 20 years, an entrepreneur, operating Frankie Robinson Oriental Gallery (FROG) with her youngest daughter. She was and is a mom too – but this basic definition was really a launching point for what was to follow. In a very real way she has layered on careers like she layers acrylic on the canvas of her life.

Frankie Robinson
Frankie Robinson

You have to work hard to get her to focus on the past. She is too consumed by the present. And by this she really demonstrates her interest in the lives of others. There are many others: old students, customers of FROG, painting friends, bridge partners, intellectual pals who read like she does – two or three books per week.

Her seven grandchildren are perhaps her closest friends now. They are united in wanting more ‘Granny Time.” A vast and complicated e-mail traffic keeps them all connected. Her family e-newsletter, “Balsam Bits” is named after her apartment address. The grandchildren all vie for pride-of-placement in the weekly catalogue of achievements. It is a mock disaster when Granny leaves one of them out of its columns. The remedy is quickly administered: all of the mentioned e-mail Granny with marvelous achievements (either real or richly imagined) of the forgotten grandchild. Next week’s edition then invariably features a mini-essay on the forgotten, dotting on their obvious intelligence, courage and engagement in the face of life’s challenges.

Frankie faces challenges too. She hasn’t come this far in life without experiencing her share of setbacks and struggle. She now takes a dozen pills daily and maintains a regular and intelligent round of her loving doctors. She no longer has a dentist because she outlived him. She pointedly never complains about ailments. “No one wants to hear about that!” Instead her life is filled with positive energy and love.

And every day it is returned with interest.

Troy Media columnist Mike Robinson has lived half of his life in Alberta and half in B.C. In Calgary he worked for eight years in the oil patch, 14 in academia, and eight years as a cultural CEO. Frankie is his mother.

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