Artist Jason Bard Yarmosky on His Loving, Offbeat Portraits of His Grandparents

Portfolio: Jason Bard Yarmosky

April 22, 2016 by Dan Halm
There is an older woman and a man looking at one another
picture of old woman in swimsuit by a lake
Jason Bard Yarmosky, Wintered Fields (triptych), 2015, oil on canvas

The wrinkled skin on the canvas is beautiful—supple and realistic, like you could feel how soft it would be to the touch. Mesmerizing and luscious in their execution, the works seem to pulsate with vitality, grace and gentle humor—the latter evidenced by the superhero costumes, the bunny ears, the sailor’s cap. For six years, Jason Bard Yarmosky (BFA 2010 Illustration) has been creating affectionate, offbeat portraits of his 88-year-old grandparents, Len and Elaine Bard. Working variously with oils and graphite, Yarmosky’s project examines the complexities of aging and attempts to capture the wisdom and experience accrued over a long, well-lived life. “With my work I’m able to explore questions of memory and time,” he says, “to reveal the tension between the physical and psychological transformations that my grandparents are going through.”

“The art that speaks to me the most is personal,” Yarmosky says. “For me, it’s not about conventional beauty.” Rather, he seeks to find beauty in struggle, and in ambiguity. “In our society, we don’t celebrate getting older. We celebrate youth, but it’s inevitable that we all age. So why can’t we celebrate the full life cycle?”

Some of Yarmosky’s portraits, like Trick or Treaters (2013), portray his grandparents wearing Halloween costumes—a metaphor for the fact that we never lose a youthful part of ourselves, and the notion that people revert to childish ways in their twilight years. His subjects were more than game for dressing up, despite the risk of ridicule—a reflection of the trust and sense of humor Yarmosky and his grandparents share. “I’m really impressed with how open they are,” he says.

Of course, aging comes with its share of problems—health and otherwise—and neither the artist nor his subjects shy away from confronting them. After his grandmother was diagnosed with dementia, Yarmosky and his grandparents decided to continue with their collaboration, and his latest series of paintings and drawings allude to her condition. “I realized how important it was for her to stay involved in this, for all of us,” he says. “To be able to continue the relationship I have with her is so special.”

SVA Features: Artist Jason Bard Yarmosky on His Loving, Offbeat Portraits of His Grandparents
SVA Features asset

As his grandmother copes with her disease, music has become an important part of her modeling work, engaging and focusing her attention. “While she may not remember this or that,” he says, “she’ll remember every word of a Frank Sinatra song, or the dance moves to a Glenn Miller number.” Recent works have his grandmother appearing larger than life, scale-wise, in a Wonder Woman costume—a tribute to her fighter’s spirit. She stands before minimal backgrounds that, in their depiction of changing seasons and vast blank spaces, reference her illness and her battle against it.

Working together has not just brought Yarmosky and his grandparents closer together; it has also turned the elderly couple into minor art-world celebrities. “When they come to my openings they’re treated like stars. People even ask for their autographs,” he says proudly. “They’ve even become a little jaded.”

Spending so much time with his grandparents has given Yarmosky a rare and intimate view of the aging process. “Aging obviously is more evident when you’re looking at an elderly person, but we’re all getting older,” he says. “It’s amazing to me that I’m using my art as a tool to explore things that I think about in life—things that interest me the most—and that I can do it with the people I’m the closest with. That’s special.”

Yarmosky’s work has been exhibited in solo and group exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad. He is currently represented by Aeroplastics Contemporary in Brussels.

SVA Features: Artist Jason Bard Yarmosky on His Loving, Offbeat Portraits of His Grandparents

Dan Halm (MFA 2001 Illustration as Visual Essay, BFA 1994 Illustration) is an artist, independent curator and project manager for External Relations at SVA.

This article appears in the spring 2016 issue of Visual Arts Journal.