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Jacqueline Piatigorsky was born in Paris in 1911. Among her accomplishments, she represented the United States in the woman's chess Olympics and won numerous national tennis championships. She published her memoir Jump in the Waves (St. Martin's Press) in 1988.
Jacqueline has been a sculptor for over 35 years. Her work combines warmth, elegance and a refined sense of form. She has had three one-person shows and continues to work to this day. She is in her ninety-second year. (AW)

Growing As We Age


Jacqueline Piatigorsky

© Copyright 2003, Jacqueline Piatigorsky.
All rights reserved.
This article may not be reproduced or distributed
without specific written permission from the author


I thank Harriet Panitz without whose suggestion, this essay would never have been written.


To Jephta and Joram

Forward by Dr. Lissy Jarvic

The most rapidly growing age group worldwide is that over the age of 85 years. In the United States, for example, there are currently about four million persons over the age of 85; for 2050, nearly 19 million are projected.

And, here in the United States we can hardly escape the continuous barrage of statistics concerning the steeply accelerating health care expenditures imposed on society by the oldest old. The grimness of this information is exceeded only by the dire warnings that health care resources, as well as social and fiscal resources, will be insufficient to meet the needs of the ever older, and therefore, sicker and needier, citizens of our country.

Jacqueline Piatigorsky's insightful, poetic description, written after she reached the age of 90 years, brings into sharp relief a welcome contrast to the prevailing myth that identifies all of the oldest old with the sickest and least fortunate. Here is a woman who provides us with a living portrait of how she meets and manages the hazards of accumulating age.

First came chess, then tennis and then sculpture. She writes that she took up tennis when she gave up tournament chess, substituting a physically competitive sport for an intellectual form of competition. And, she added stone sculpture, which does not involve face-to-face communication and yet, is exceedingly demanding mentally, esthetically and physically. In her nineties, she lifts and turns large stones, some of them close to her weight. And, the works she produces are exquisite. They clearly give her and all those who see them much pleasure.

Jacqueline Piatigorsky is not alone in the adaptability she displays as she travels through time. Her story will no doubt sensitize the reader - young, middle-aged and old - to recognize others and to face the future with an open mind. The message of this essay embodies the vital ingredients gerontologists have distilled from their studies of successful aging: Optimism, enthusiasm, life-long learning, search for new challenges, and genuine joy in accomplishment. Or, in Jacqueline Piatigorsky's own words, the message of this extraordinary woman of the 20th and 21st centuries is: "keep growing, be lucky, grow until the end."

Lissy Jarvik, M.D., Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, UCLA
and Distinguished Physician Emeritus U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs.

Growing As We Age

Jacqueline Piatigorsky in her studio
Jacqueline Piatigorsky in her Studio ca 1998
next to a bust of her late husband, the renowned cellist Gregor Piatigorsky

When I turned eighty-eight, I wrote, “Eighty-eight is said to be a good age. But the bones were not told, so on the tennis court they crackle like castanets. But in the studio they are too busy to sing. Yes, eighty eight still has future.”

One day, maybe to break the silence I asked my housekeeper about her previous job.

“I worked for an old man,“ she said.

“How old?" I asked, to keep the conversation going. My mind was elsewhere.

“Eighty-eight,” she said.

My age.

"Was the work similar to here?" I asked, slightly more interested.

"Very different," she said, "except that he also played tennis."

Tennis at eighty-eight! Why was I surprised? Was eighty-eight so old? Had I forgotten my own age?

A few days later I played tennis for an hour and had a good workout. Afterwards, resting comfortably, I knew it was time to feed the dogs. "Get up," I said to myself "Get up. The dogs are waiting." If they were not demanding would I indulge myself in a comfortable armchair? I hesitated, waited a little longer, sighed and said, "I am getting old." Just words, of course. I did not believe them. I knew it was natural to be tired after playing tennis. Yet words have a hidden substance of their own. We are also steered by our own words. Could they influence a decline, or even start a downfall?

One day on the tennis court, I lost my balance and fell. Somewhat stunned, I was a little slow getting up. But by the time my opponent reached me I was already walking off the court. My elbow was bleeding so we poured a disinfectant on the wound. A bad scratch I thought. It will heal. But my granddaughter insisted I go to the emergency room. After some resistance I followed her advice.

In the emergency room we sat for three hours before a woman looked at my elbow. She wrapped ice around the wound and sent me back to the emergency room for another two hours. Finally an x-ray showed an open fracture. Surgery could not wait because of the danger of infection.

Eleven hours after falling I was out of the recovery room. I was lucky to have a wonderful young surgeon, Dr. Jeffrey Wong.

Later when I told a friend how lucky I had been that my granddaughter spent the first night with me (that had been such a comfort), and that the next day I was lucky again because my daughter surprised me by coming all the way from Baltimore to help me, my friend said, "How can you say you are lucky after such an experience?"

I was told that older people heal slowly. Maybe my positive attitude helped, as three months later I was playing tennis again.

I started my biography saying, "Fear is the story of my life" I also wrote, "Hit fear head on and it will dissolve." A true statement for young people, but I wonder if the fear that creeps in as we get older may not be somewhat justified. Now I ask myself, should one keep hitting fear head on or is fear a warning to be more careful? As we start aging it might be difficult to find the balance between challenging oneself and cautiousness.

I enjoy a challenge, and I do not know how to be careful. So I have continued my activities as usual even though the effort does not flow naturally. The difference is not perceptible to my friends who only see me sculpt and play tennis. So sometimes I have been asked, "What is your secret?" I have been tempted to answer, "Ask my genes," but instead, I truthfully tell them what I am trying to do. "Ignore the aches and pains," I say, "they go with the age."

Lately I have noticed, after my daughter picks me up at the airport and we walk to the car, that she is always ahead of me. Pride will not let me slow down. I have to make a conscious effort to walk faster. I am still able to hit problems head on. When we do not cater to our weaknesses, and they do not show enough for our friends to notice them, we feel aging before signs can be detected by others.

In most cases aging creeps up upon us slowly, so that some people do not even recognize the first signs, or refuse to admit them to themselves. I have a friend, a tennis player, who gets very annoyed when she is asked "Do you still play tennis?"

"I don't think of myself as old," she says. "Do you?"

"No," I answer, "we are not old, we are only aging."

At eighty-nine years old, after spraining my ankle I needed an ultra-sound as my leg remained unusually swollen The procedure was performed by an older man. "How did it happen?" he asked.

"On the tennis court"

He did not believe me. He turned and looked at my chart.

"You play tennis?


"I am very impressed---very impressed."

I wondered why he reacted so strongly. Aging should not be determined by a number. The average age for longevity is increasing. If that number is flexible, why does it dictate people's feelings and even their judgment? Unfortunately, many activities are curbed to fit a number, ignoring capacity. I don't see any reason to admire an older person who is active physically and mentally. It would be more appropriate to be envious and to think that she or he is fortunate.

I remember that in my mid seventies in a senior tennis tournament when the management had catered to a higher ranked player at my expense, I held my anger inside until I missed an easy shot, an unforced error it is called. I slammed the ball. I only wanted to slam it against the fence, but I mis-hit it and the ball went flying over the fence into the street. My coach watched with friends. To dissipate embarrassment he said, " Isn't it wonderful to be able to be so angry at seventy eight years old."

I was not focused on a number. My need to accomplish overpowered the start of physical discomfort and in later years even effaced the pain. My strong interests combined with determination and a positive attitude were important factors in growing well with age. Also necessary for happiness in our late years is the capacity to love. A strong love for a person, an animal, or even a plant makes our old age beautiful.

When I was asked to write on aging my first reaction was: I can't. Then I started to wonder, why can't I? Because, I concluded, aging is going down, envisioning oneself shuffling along, sitting and staring. But I did not feel the weight of the past years. I still felt strong, at times even forgetting that I was so called "old." I even felt that I had a future, that I could go forward, and not sit bent by the weight of the past century, rehashing the old dreams, only to watch them melt and fade down a dark pit.

Sometimes as we get older, wiser and more introspective, we still need to be able to reach back into our young years and solve the problems and face the torments we had as children and have carried through youth into our late years. Often those torments still interfere with the peace of mind we need in our old age.

I said to my friend who had suggested I write on aging, "Yes, I will try. Writing is a good way to get garbage out of one's system." But when I mentioned the word garbage she, horrified, quickly retorted, "Feelings are not garbage." For me anger, hate, unfounded resentment left over from the past are like morsels of food left on a dirty plate: THEY ARE GARBAGE.

At a fairly young age Marcel Duchamp, after painting the woman going downstairs, stopped painting with no apparent reason. When confronted he said, " I have nothing new to say, and I do not want to repeat myself". He continued to paint and sculpt secretly and also became an avid chess player. His feeling of having nothing new to say, may have been connected to a fear of aging.

When my son, in his early adolescence, felt the need to protect himself from an over protective mother, he looked up at me, smiled and said, " I am indestructible." He became a scientist, his work admired and respected. But when he entered his fifties and was sometimes a little discouraged, he asked, "Do you think I am finished?" "Of course not," I quickly retorted. Then he added, " I am getting old. All important discoveries were made by very young people." "Did you forget that Michelangelo's Moses was carved when he was ninety years old?" I asked him. My son's fear of aging did not stop him from continuing extremely successful work.

I started playing chess at a very young age. It was fun and at the same time relaxing and invigorating. But when I reached competition, it became hard. During the four hours of tournament play under time pressure, tension accumulates with no release. At the end of a tournament, exhausted and drained, I thought, "I am too old for this." Chess had become too tiring. So what did I do? I switched to tennis.

Commonly speaking aging means getting older, adding a number of years to our lives, the process of passing from youth to old age. There is nothing tangible between youth and aging, as often there is nothing tangible between aging and being old. Sometimes, though, old age is marked by an accident such as a fracture or a stroke. As we age our activities often diminish and sometimes our bodies deteriorate and our minds slow down. But at what age? The age of our downfall can vary immensely.

When I tell friends that my brother is ninety-two, I am asked, "How is his mind? Is he still alert?" Aging is often accompanied by mental deterioration, accidents and sickness.

I have an eighty-one-year-old friend who feels there is a stigma attached to the word aging. "It should be called growing," she told me.

"Growing old, you mean, " I answered a little sarcastically.

"I write poetry, I am creative and active," she said. "so I am not aging, I am growing."

"But," she hesitated, " if I see myself in a mirror....." She did not finish her sentence.

When my hair started to become gray, friends nagged me. "Dye your hair," they said. It had not occurred to me to do that. But just thinking of it repulsed me.

Racine expressed what I felt when he wrote, "Elle entra toute fardee pour reparer des ans l'irreparable outrage." (She entered well painted in order to repair the years' irreparable damage.) That is nonsense, I was told. "You put lipstick on. Why not look as nice as possible?" But I thought, accept yourself the way you are. There can be beauty at any stage of life if your looks reflect a genuine personality. I had an aunt whose hair turned white when she was eighteen years old. She was beautiful I was told. It seemed to have snowed on an orange tree..

It is well known that older people often repeat themselves. They keep forgetting what they have already said. As two pieces can never be identical in looks or in the feeling they express, in art there is no reason to be afraid of repetition, as Marcel Duchamp was. In the way an artist works on the same subject, he is perfecting his style, and is actually creating something new. So aging for an artist should not imply that his work declines, even if he feels that he has nothing new to say. Regardless of age, the different happenings in an artist's life are reflected in his or her work.

In my eighty-ninth year, besides fracturing my elbow on the tennis court, I tore a muscle in my right calf. A few weeks later my dogs tripped me and I fell again, this time in the house, on a rug. No serious injuries occurred, but I was bruised enough to have to interrupt my activities for a while. As soon as I was able, I started sculpting. I made a sketch of a broken circle, referring to the accidents which had temporarily broken the circle of my productive life.

When my husband was a child his mother cooked a large pot of borsch which lasted almost a week. Each day as they ate they said," The soup is better today than yesterday." and maybe it was!

Aging does not always imply deteriorating. It is actually a growing process, as my friend said when she was writing poetry. As we grow older we become more settled, wiser, and more thoughtful. But often we still need to reach back into our young years, to try to solve the problems of childhood, and face the torments that we carry as hidden baggage. Those impressions we have stored, are not all "garbage", as I said earlier. We carry within us a richness of contradictory feelings. Some we need to overcome, and others become an inspiration to the artist, developing in him or her a creative force. Once when I was trying to express myself in sculpting, I made a piece called the "Internal Knot" which I hoped would show how difficult it is to reach deep down in one's self. I also made a piece called a "Bird in a Cage" to say that often feelings are locked in. But some people saw this piece differently. They said, "It's not a bird in a cage, it's a chick in the egg." People see art through their own feelings.

I was in my late forties when I started to cut stone. When I looked at the small white stone I had bought (called sugar stone even though it was quite hard), I knew it had to become a little bird. Although I did not know how to start, I knew it WAS going to be a little bird. I struggled for more than a year before my bird came alive and sat calm and peaceful like the ducks I had seen gliding on a quiet lake while I was growing up.

In making my first sculpture, I had not only lived up to the challenge of learning a little how to shape stone, I had started to express myself, and I had created a new interest. Of course, I also knew I could not continue to fumble my way through hard marble as if it were soft. I had to get a teacher. I tried going to a local sculpture class, but a class once a week proved to be not enough. The stone was too heavy to carry back and forth, and the teacher was reluctant to come to the house. Then I went to a show in Beverly Hills where I found the work of a wonderful sculptor who lived in Vista, California. Shortly afterwards, my husband and I drove down to Vista to meet him.

"I don't teach," was his first reaction. My husband seldom took no for an answer. He convinced Anthony Amato to come to us. We got along well.

For several years he came every Thursday, and I was able to work from week to week learning technique.

I had a teacher.

When I started my third piece, I became more daring. I wanted to show some of the bird's contortions. When my new bird, with his beak in his chest, moved from the working block into his new home, my teacher said, "When you decided to make this bird I did not think you would be able to. I was hoping you would not even try."

As I developed a little technique I became more and more involved in my new interest. Of course, as essential as it was to improve my technique, in order to move heavy blocks of marble I also had to get some knowledge of leverage. My teacher said, "If you can't handle the stone you are not a sculptor." So I learned to handle it. But when I got close to ninety years old I needed help. My gardener came and turned the stone for me, so I was able to continue working. Was I not a sculptor anymore?

Although I worked for about ten years, I still thought of my work as a hobby because I did not consider it of a professional level until the day I was encouraged to show my birds. My husband, through a friend of his, found a gallery which seemed glad to give me the opportunity to show my work.

To grow in art we need to be exposed in order to find out where our work stands. A disappointment could be crushing, or we could be very encouraged. My first exhibition was in October 1976. I showed fourteen pieces. I was sixty-five years old.

There was no letdown in exposing my work. On the contrary, it was exciting to see it in a different environment, in a setting to its advantage. To my great surprise, Beverly Hills City Hall bought a large piece called "Fusion". I gave them a beautiful granite stand, and it was displayed for several years until they moved it to the Beverly Hills Library. During the transfer they lost the stand and chipped the sculpture. Later I went to the library and refinished it. At this point I realized that my work was more than a hobby.

Underlying my first show's success there was sadness, because my husband had died a few months earlier. He had supported me through my learning years. He had set up the show, but he was not there to share it with me.

The first piece I made after my husband's death was a travertine bird's head looking up with a very long open beak as if gasping for air as my husband had when he suffered with lung cancer. To open the beak I started cutting from the bottom up and from the top down until the two ends were so close that only a thin piece of stone separated the two empty spaces. When I cut through the last sliver of stone the bird startled me by letting out a loud ring, an eerie cry which filled the entire studio.

As I continued working, I became more daring and with some help I made a very large pelican. My "Big Bird" took three years to make. Then I made a small infinity, a portrait of my husband with the cello, a kiwi bird with a long thin beak, and later a very large double infinity which took me two years more.

As I prepared for my second show, which was held twelve years later in 1988, I was not anymore just aging, I was getting old, and yet I also was still growing!

Eventually my teacher became too overpowering and I realized then, that in order to grow I had to be on my own. I felt it was time to let go of the supporting hand. I was looking forward to expressing myself freely when suddenly I felt uncomfortable, and for some unknown reason I was afraid. I did not know what to say or how to say. I started to work. I made a totally uninteresting design, carved the stone poorly, and stumbled through a very bad sculpture. But it served to break the ice and rebuild my confidence. Once again I had hit fear head on.

I worked for another nine years before I was ready for a third show. Even though I had sold only one piece in 1988, the Heritage Gallery which had hosted my second show, once again accepted my work.

In my third show in 1997 my work tended to move away a little from fluid curves. I felt budding in me the start of a new style which I attempted to show in a small sculpture made of three angular pieces, one of which was supposed to be a dagger.

When sculpting there is satisfaction in the perfection of the execution if it is used for the purpose of saying something. It has been justly said, " Art is the combination of hands, head, and heart." Yet when we get older with still a clear head and something to say, but have lost a lot of our body power, work for a sculptor becomes discouraging. Standing a few hours at a time becomes too hard on the back. Because of pain one tends to be impatient and sometimes tries to finish work fast, becoming skimpy with the execution. Then we do not give ourselves time to dig deep into our thoughts.

As I grew older, even though my knowledge and mastery of the stone had increased, I knew my work was deteriorating, stunted by a diminished body. Frustrated, I sat down, with the vision of what I had set out to do. I knew how to do it, but I couldn't. "Too late," I murmured, I should have worked when I was young." "Too late," I repeated, and sank into a chair.

But then the quest for life rose and said, " You are not yet ready to die."

"It is never too late," I said with little conviction. As I mentioned earlier, we are steered by our own words. "Never too late," I repeated, got up and went back to work. I still had the incentive to go forward. From a hidden source, a surge of energy had stimulated that incentive.

Everyone needs an incentive. The most common one is the need for money. When that obligation is absent some people make no unnecessary effort. They indulge themselves.

Having to care for someone we love, an animal, or even a plant, is another important incentive. For instance when I get up early in the morning to let the dogs out, and feed them, my effort is richly rewarded. The effort also helps to slow down the aging process. When barely awake, uncertain on my feet, I enter the kitchen and am greeted by two wagging tails of lively happy dogs, I feel a new life injected into me.

I never needed any special incentive to play tennis. It appealed to my competitive nature. Fun combined with a physical effort contributed a lot to my remaining " young".

I think it is unusual to become more dynamic as one's body weakens. Nevertheless after the third show of my sculptures I still continued working in a more dynamic way. I made a large cactus, and in a fairly large block of Carrara marble, I carved "Lightning" the two angular pieces which I hoped to include in my next show.

I made a habit of starting a new piece before finishing an old one, so as not to have a letdown. For instance, when my work on Lightning was half way through, I started to cut "Cactus" in a large piece of orange alabaster. "Aren't you going to finish Lightning?" I was asked several times. "Eventually, " I answered. When my Cactus came to life, I was happy to find Lightning waiting for me.

One day after losing a frustrating game of tennis and complaining to my grandson, he asked, "Why do you do it?" I don't remember, but he told me I answered. "If I do not move I will die."

But sculpture! What makes me continue working almost into my nineties? I wish I knew. I love the stone especially when it is well polished, but that pleasure is not enough to trigger disciplined hard work.

Why do I sculpt? What drives me? I think it is a need to express emotions, to share feelings. Of course I love the stone itself. Stone varies greatly. Each one has a life of its own and has something different to say. Every stone I work on becomes my friend, and we can reach out, express ourselves and say something together.

I was told once, "At our age we are entitled to do what we want." So I "want " to work in the studio, I "want" to bring the stone to life and say something, and that need comes from deep down in me. My husband explained that need more poetically when he said, "We don't choose the cello, it chooses us."

I cannot explain the urge, or to put it more exactly, the compulsion to achieve. But I do know that part of aging well is due to the mental and physical effort it takes.

As we age, a danger looms: loneliness.

Loneliness, the residue of long gone times, is the gift of old age. "Do we have to accept any gift thrust upon us?". It would be wise to say, "No thank you." But sometimes, a little weak, we glance inside, a mistake, for we are assailed with self-pity, anger and even fear. "Reject the poison gift," I say. Get up, stand up, look up. The garden is still lit. The leaves and petals exude warmth under the fading sun. Within me there is no emptiness.

What is in me? When enveloped by the silent fluid atmosphere of twilight, is it loneliness or is it peace?

Loneliness comes when we do not know how to relate to ourselves, how to use the richness we hold: how to find the power to still step forward.

It is nice to say, "I am going forward", but forward to where? We all know what is at the end of the road. We are lucky if we are able to keep going forward to the end of a long road.

"I am tough, "I told myself when I reached ninety. But now I say, "I was tough. The past is no more. Look ahead into the mist," The fog envelopes, becomes opaque. "Fear not, stop not, step in, find, find a ray of hope." It is there. "Yes," I murmured and went back to work.

My first ambition was to transfer the clay sketch I had made for Broken Circle into stone. Then I made a tall thin bird, a proud bird, maybe because I felt happy to have reached the age of ninety.

Nevertheless decline continues; slowly the balloon deflates, reaches twilight.

It's over, or is it? A voice comes from the depth of darkness. It says, " Hang on."

Yes there is still life left in me. The bones cry out "No" but there is life left in me. The water level diminishes. The pool threatens to dry out. Only a threat. Should a threat be taken seriously? Or should it be ignored?

I remember watching a chess grand master play in a tournament. He was allergic to smoke.

When his opponent pulled from his pocket a big cigar and laid it on the table beside him, the grand master looked at the cigar. He kept staring at it. He was so upset he could not concentrate on his game. Finally he called the referee. His opponent smiled.

"I am not smoking," he said.

"But," said the grand master, "he is threatening to smoke."

Ignore threats; look at what is left. Grow as we age, I said. Can we grow in a limited space? Use the space and it will enlarge like the stone I carve. As the stone shapes into life, it seems larger. Yes, grow till the end.

On our way to the end we may enter a transition period, as we have lost only partly the feeling of infinity. We not only know the end is close, we feel it. But we do not face it head on as the date is not set. So I went back to work. Absorbed in the creation of a new form, even the bones remained silent. But when time came to rest for a little while, I faced an empty space: nothing. "No" I said. "Fill the space. A large pink stone is waiting." I got up and smiled.

Twilight brightens, maybe enough to permit another step, a step forward, another surge of growth.

Yes, keep growing, be lucky, grow until the end.

Selected sculptures of Jacqueline Piatigorsky
Click to see selected sculptures of Jacqueline Piatigorsky

Jacqueline Piatigorsky can be emailed at

photographs © Copyright 1998-2002 Gary Fisher

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