5 tips on making art with elders

by | Apr 25, 2024

Never go into business with friends or family.

That’s what they say…

But I’ve made a creative career in part by collaborating with parents.

These are my 5 tips on creating art with elders.

I say “elders” because not everyone has living parents or a copacetic relationship with them. But I think everyone could or should forge meaningful relationships with elders. We have a lot to learn from those who have come before us. As elders reach their winter season, it can be a tremendous gift to learn from them, but also to memorialize them and help pass their wisdom to future generations.

When you create art about someone, you immortalize them.

I grew up in an Indian family, and I’m a jazz aficionado. My cultural and musical influences emphasize respect and veneration of elders. In an Indian household, you may find many generations living together. In a jazz band, you can easily young and older artists playing alongside. Passing the torch has always been important to me.

First, start small.

You don’t have to create an epic work.

It can be daunting finding the time and coordinating schedules. Everyone is busy. Instead of starting with the goal of a book or film, you could think smaller in order to gain momentum.

You could write a short blog about the elder. Or a poem. Or you could write one together.

When you publish and share, you’ll create momentum.

Don’t worry about getting published in The New Yorker. Just post to your website or social media.

In 2017, I wrote a poem inspired by my father. I then turned it into a song and album. But I started with just a few words. My father was extremely gratified, and I used that energy to keep going.

Second, create art about their life.

Create art that is about the elder. Tell their story.

  • Where are they from?
  • What did they do?
  • What obstacles did they overcome?
  • What do they want their legacy to be?
  • What is their sense of humor?
  • What is their family like?

Just describing someone can make them feel seen and recognized.

I started with these very questions when writing my dad’s biography.

One sentence after the next. Just tell it how it is.

Third, recognize their interest level.

Determine who or what is the impetus for this project. Is it you or the elder?

Some people are excited to participate. Others have little or no interest.

For example, my mom always wanted to write children’s books. It was one of her life dreams. I had already published a few nonfiction books, and I suggested that we partner to write picture books. She welcomed the idea, and we’ve written many books ever since. My mom enthusiastically reads our books at schools. She is excited with almost every phase of life as an author.

My dad, however, was reluctant to partner in writing a book with and about him. He didn’t want to relive some of the difficult experiences of his life. He also wanted to talk in person, but we weren’t living in the same city. When I visited him, I made sure to capture as much material as I could especially the stories about the challenging parts of his life. I asked him to look at me and placed the recording device out of his direct eyesight.

If your elder is reluctant to participate, try to find out why and mitigate their concerns. You could also create art about them as a way to honor them and share it with them.

Most of the elders I’ve worked with are usually honored to collaborate. Most people don’t even think to ask their parents/elders.


Four, leverage smart tools.

I always travel with an audio recorder. You do too.

You can leverage the voice memo function on you phone to interview elders. It may even be worth investing in a TASCAM or Sony voice recorder. It’s a good idea to get high quality audio whenever you can.

You can turn lunches and dinners into informal interviews.

You could also set up a video interview or record via a Zoom meeting.

Just capture the material. You don’t need a master plan yet.

Who knows? You may turn into a spoken word project. Or use AI to clone their voice (with the elders’ consent) for a special project.

You need 2 things: interest and time.

We’re living in an age in which the technology is ubiquitous and easy to use.

Five, leverage asynchronous collection.

There are a bevy of apps that can help you record elders both synchronously and asynchronously. You don’t always have to be around in person to capture the stories.

For example, Storycorps and Storyworth can help you record and capture conversations – and even turn the material into fully finished projects like printed books.

There has never been a better time to create art with and for an elder.

I’m excited to see what you will create.