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State of the Arts: Poet and Photographer Bridge Age Gap in New Book on Growing Older

"In the Garden of Old Age" is a reflection on love, friendship and finding peace. The book is a collaboration between an older writer and a young photographer. On this week's State of the Arts, we sit down with the book's creators.

You have to move quickly to keep up with Nina Freedlander Gibans.

"Alright should I speed up this vehicle? It goes seven miles an hour," she said with a smile as the 87-year-old writer captains her electric wheelchair down corridors and up elevators at her retirement community, Judson Park.

Gibans has written books on everything from Cleveland architecture to the community arts council movement. Her life, she said, is as busy as ever.

And 87, well that’s just a number.

"Old age is often characterized as not very fun, but guess what? Those are the weeds. There are lots of flowers. And if one captures what they can of the life that they had, the life that they are having now, and make something of it—that’s a garden."

Several of the book’s more than 50 poems are inspired by life at Judson.

"I live in the garden of old age here at Judson Park, and I began to have fun with the observations I was making, with the people I was talking with, with the things that would happen around a table."

Nina Gibans reads the poem 'For Dorothy' from the book 'In the Garden of Old Age."

"In the Garden of Old Age" is half verse and half photography. Mutual friends connected Gibans with 25-year-old photographer Abby Star.

"Well at first I thought she was going to ask me to photograph the people that were in the book. I actually don’t like photographing people. I was prepared to say 'no, thanks,'" Star said. 

But Gibans wanted to pair her poems about growing older with the changing life cycle of nature.

"So as soon as she said that I was all in," Star said. 

As you flip through the book’s pages, bright flowers give way to autumnal leaves, the colors becoming more and more monochromatic.

Abby Star's photography of leaves and flowers is a metaphor for aging.

The final poems are flanked by black and white photos of streams and tall forest canopies.

"As you age, you can look at it negatively as if you are the brown leaf. Or you can look at as you still are a green leaf, and you are still vibrant with this great life. You’re just a little bit older with a couple more holes," Star said.

As we comb through the book, Nina Gibans stops on a page near the back.

"I would like to read a poem," she said as she finds the right page. 

150 Years of Faces, by Nina Freedlander Gibans

150 years of faces, a quilt of photos

laid out upon my bed

I have met some of them on shelves, sleeves in the wedding albums

in the back of the old scrapbook marking a part in the Hagaddah.

They are on the piano, on the bookcase

on the cart, on the table in front of the window.

My grandfather sits in a grand frame on the floor;

my grandmother is on the wall

hair swept up regal and blond

above her high collar

just like a famous portrait

by a famous artist.

Now I need more;

What was she like Holding that baby, my grandmother?

I do not know them; I did not hug them.

My father tried to tell me

how they lived when they came to settle here from Poland;

stories stumble from the pictures

relatives and friends tell theirs.

Sentences end in old lilac bushes, in the deep antique rose,

in the trail of wisteria perfume,

mulled cinnamon, clove and winter spices

old recipes in my grandmother’s handwriting.

I cannot know unless I am told;

I cannot believe unless I know;

I cannot hug them unless they are in my dreams

And I am in the pictures with them.

Mark Arehart joined the award-winning WKSU news team as its arts/culture reporter in 2017. Before coming to Northeast Ohio, Arehart hosted Morning Edition and covered the arts scene for Delaware Public Media. He previously worked for KNKX in Seattle, Kansas Public Radio, and KYUK in Bethel, Alaska.