An elderly woman clutches the arm of her chair and pushes down on it, her shoulder canted with the effort of forcing her weight up from a sitting position.
It is a struggle that Myrna Reis portrays in her larger-than-life painting, Woman in Red Rising. The woman’s red dress fires the moment with a visual intensity and the subject’s face is pinched with concentration.
This is one of Reis’s heroines in her solo exhibition, Women Matter: Homage to Older Women, which is showing in the main gallery space of the Eleanor London Côte-St-Luc Public Library until Oct. 22.
The 15 oil paintings on display make up the first solo show for this retired research psychologist who has devoted much of her life to the wellbeing of seniors, but has also painted all her life.
“I was a late bloomer and got my PhD in my 40s,” says Reis. “My psycho-social research in gerontology comes through in my pictures. I was sensitized to these issues, in particular the abuse of seniors.”
In 1995, five years before she retired, she co-wrote, with social worker Daphne Nahmiash, a book titled, When Seniors are Abused: A Guide to Intervention, which lays out guidelines on how to detect, prevent and reduce the abuse of older people.
At the time, she was an adjunct assistant professor at the Centre for Research in Human Development at Concordia University and was also affiliated with the McGill University School of Medicine through the McGill Centre for Studies in Aging. In other words, she knows of what she speaks on the subject of elder abuse and neglect.
Her paintings, however, are not academic, but pure emotion, created from sessions with live models.
Her biggest influences are painters Marion Wagschal and Egon Schiele, an Austrian Expressionist. Schiele’s work in the early 20th century found power in distortion. Like him, Reis focuses on the language of hands, enlarged and often claw-like with arthritis.
One of her works depicts a wrinkled, white-haired woman hunched over with age and wearing a bathrobe. She is shaking a fist at the world and at time itself. But Reis says that bitterness is not all there is to aging.
“Yes, our health fails and our appearance changes as we age, but there is beauty and wisdom that comes of it, as well,” she says.
Another canvas, Woman in Green on Bench, is of a well-dressed woman, a Holocaust survivor, who seems to be trying to keep up appearances and stay as lovely as she was in her youth.
“And yet, she’s better than what she was,” says Reis, “because she understands about people and she has her values straight. Sure, she has the problems that come with aging, but you just cope.”
An unexpected act of vandalism marks the painting: it suffered a cigarette burn near its top, exposing the wooden stretcher beneath the canvas. “It’s something I value because, to me, it was a sign of barbarism and I incorporated it as part of the sitter’s Holocaust experience,” she says.
Reis is a socially conscious artist, which is evidenced in her collage of an Afghani girl with light eyes, surrounded by a world of violence and terror. Yet something as mundane as a jumble of shoes and purses in a still life is just as important.
“It’s all about the woman. I think it’s the day of the woman, and older women in particular. It’s important to get that message out. I see how we are marginalized and patronized and how bad things can come of it,” says Reis.