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"Painting is just another way of keeping a diary"
Ralph Lowen of Amherst Massachusetts went to art school to become a painter when he was 50-years-old.
“It took a lot of guts to walk into that school full of teenagers the first day!” Lowen said laughing. "But I met some of the best people there. To me, art school was all about thinking. We tend to think inside the box and I think we all need a bump to be able to think outside the box,” Lowen said.
Thinking outside of the box is something Lowen does very well — his life has been anything but typical. He spent the late 1960s living in a small village in Senegal in West Africa while serving in the Peace Corps.
“The Senegalese people were the kindest, most giving people I’ve ever met,“ he said, smiling behind his thin wire-framed eyeglasses.
Upon returning to the US in the early 70's, he began a career as a special ed teacher which, according to Lowen, seemed a natural stepping stone into the field of psychotherapy.
The jump to art came after practicing psychotherapy for almost two decades. Leaving the practice behind, he spent the next few years drawing and painting in the Fenway area of Boston at the School of the Museum of Fine Art.
Today, paintings cover the walls of his home, sculptures—big and small—sit in corners and on bookshelves making the living room feel more like a museum than a place to sit and watch television.
Inside his art studio on the second floor, one discovers walls adorned with sketches, paintings and prints. Paint smears stain the floor and a drawing easel in the center of the room displays a pastel self-portrait of the artist.
One wall stands out from the others. Three masks covered by long lengths of colorful fabric hang on the wall below a sign that reads “I wish I had asked!!!.”
“My wife uses those masks with cancer patients,” he tells me. “I’m making a sculpture with them to tell their stories.”
His most recent project involves capturing the stories of elders who are in their final days.
His website explains, “I Wish I Had Asked is a program that digitally records the stories and oral histories of those touched by cancer, the elderly, and people who are terminally or critically ill. The recordings are done free of charge and are given to the individual and their families to share and keep.”
He got the idea for the project at his uncles funeral.
“I was at my uncles funeral and I was standing next to my cousin. She walked up next to me and said ‘I wish I had asked’,” Lowen said, pausing in recollection. “I realized then that stories are the greatest asset that we have and that we’re loosing them faster than we are capable of putting them down.”
He’s been visiting senior centers and cancer support centers with audio recording equipment ever since, capturing and preserving peoples stories so that they can be shared with their families.
Lowen is passionate about preserving memories in his paintings and recordings. He’s also passionate about preserving the environment.
“As I age I realize how important the environment is for the future generations. It sort of fits in with recording peoples stories and trying to pass on to their families important information that gives them a sense of their place in history. But if you're going to have a sense of history, you need a healthy environment to live in to remember that history,” he said.
Lowen does a lot to preserve the environment. He’s reduced his consumption and had Northeast Solar install solar electric photovoltaics on his roof.
“At my age, I won’t live to see the financial return on these solar panels, but I do it for the generations that have to follow me,” Lowen said. “I want to preserve the environment as much as I want to preserve the stories that I record.”