Senior Artists and Their Evolving Work

Embracing the new in art and ideas, a group of New York City artists – ages 71 to 92 – paint, draw, etch and photograph, adapting and growing as the years go by

| 16 Aug 2022 | 10:37

For Eileen Millan, a 40-year Manhattan resident who has lived in the same Chelsea building, The Vermeer, for over 25 years, it was a watercolor painting class for adults at a nearby high school that propelled her from art and craft hobbyist to popular artist of her own brand of watercolor paintings and expanding line of greeting cards.

“I started painting in school, but it really came to a head with the adult education class,” that she took with several friends about 15 years ago and where one of their assignments was to make a mask, Millan said.

“I remembered growing up in Brooklyn, we would make masks out of cardboard, and we would punch holes in it and put a rubber band where the big ears were.” It was this memory that led her to paint the first “Mr. Big Ears” watercolor character as her project assignment, later giving it to a friend for his birthday. The “whimsical and childlike” style painting was spotted on her friend’s wall by a neighbor who happened to be an art dealer and soon she was exhibiting in a Madison Avenue gallery. Many exhibitions followed.

Several years later, Millan started making greeting cards after painting one for a friend’s birthday. At the end of the party, several people approached her all asking, “Can you make a card like that for someone?” she said. She has been hand painting these colorful cards for years now – “some abstract, some flowers, some different designs,” exploring new styles as business remain brisk.

Millan’s art is intricately intertwined with the friendships and associations of the many people she knows, especially relationships developed with longtime neighbors in her building. “I really like people,” she said. “I’m so blessed, [they] have turned it into this incredible family of people.”

“Very Geometric”

On the Upper West Side near Riverside Park, artist Joe Dance is also in love with his surroundings.

“Everything is right here in my neighborhood” he says of all that is available on the UWS, sharing how he walked daily in Riverside Park during the pandemic, a space he finds beautiful and welcoming.

Now 72, Dance moved to New York from West Virginia 45 years ago with his late wife, an actress, both wanting to live in the city and him planning to be the “next great American painter.”

A Cubist devotee, with an MFA in Painting and Art Education, he was teaching before moving to New York, where the reality of having to pay the rent finally led him to take a day job in retail – a field he worked in through retirement, he said.

Dance continued working as an artist, doing it on the side, creating paintings at the time that were “very geometric, with color – and big.” With or without the fame, he had to keep pursuing his art. “The point was not even [just] to sell – the point is to create; that is what feeds the soul,” Dance said.

Since his retirement in 2015, Dance, who steadily added collage to his large paintings until he was doing much smaller black and white collage work, says he now considers himself a collagist: an artist who specializes in collages.

This was a gradual progression over the years. “Cubists like Picasso invented collage in their paintings,” he said, and following this path, he started putting bits and pieces of “anything that attracted me” in his paintings: a stamp, or a gum wrapper, something he may find on the street with an interesting pattern or color.

“It was so satisfying to be able to work in this little space and create these beautiful little gems,” he said of his now small pieces. “Instantly almost, when a collage was finished, it was so wonderful to me, because it was done.”

Rooftop Photos

Back in the same Chelsea building that watercolorist Millan calls home, 86-year-old photographer Robin Glasser Sacknoff regularly takes stunning rooftop photos of the New York City skyline. She uses her iPhone.

After years of carrying around heavy equipment and doing her own printing in a darkroom where she was starting to become sensitive to the chemicals involved, Sacknoff was ready for a change.

“When digital came out, I immediately went digital,” she said of the switch. And when the International Center of Photography gave an early course in “iPhoneography,” she quickly signed up, going for “years and years” and eventually becoming a teaching assistant there.

Sacknoff started off as a painter, but after taking a required photography class as an undergraduate at Brooklyn College in the mid-1950s, she “just fell in love with it,” she said of the instant connection she felt with the artform.

The years that followed were very busy, including a move to North Carolina and raising a family, and she did not pursue photography as a career until she moved back to New York in 1985.

Then in her 60s, she went back to school. “I realized I loved photography, but I knew nothing about it technically, I just took pictures. So I went back and got a degree actually at FIT.”

Since then, Sacknoff has traveled and photographed extensively, capturing images of her journeys with a special focus on street scenes, leading to exhibitions of her work both in the U.S. and internationally. While putting a hold on travel because of the pandemic, she still photographs in her uniquely interesting home, New York City.

Etchings and Woodcut Designs

At 92, Miriam Quen Cheikin takes classes at the Art Students League of New York at least once a week. She has been doing so for 20 years now.

Cheikin draws mostly, winning awards for her drawings over the years, later expanding to etchings and woodcut designs that “always got a good reception.” She keeps studying with the teaching artists at The League because she wants to keep improving – not for gain.

“I’m not interested in making money from it, but I’m interested in getting better,” she says of the very challenging woodcutting print process. “That’s important [to me], so I take it seriously in that sense.”

Cheikin comes from a family of many artists and could always draw, but became a professor of English and American Literature, and only started pursuing her art in earnest at around 65, once retired.

Woodcut, or relief drawing, is one of the oldest forms of printmaking where a design is made on a piece of wood, and using special knives, the areas outside of the design is cut away, leaving a raised image to which ink is applied. A sheet of paper is then applied to the inked area to capture the design.

Cheikin, who also lives in the ‘building of artists’ in Chelsea, does exhibitions from time to time, and also travels regularly, especially in the winter, often giving away her work for charitable reasons. “If people like something, and I see that they really like it, I’ll give it to them,” she says.

Artist contacts:

Eileen Millan (watercolor paintings and greeting cards):

Joe Dance (collages, paintings):

Robin Glasser Sacknoff (photographer):

Miriam Quen Cheikin (woodcuts, etchings, drawings):