With the success of the young celebrated in countless “30 under 30” lists, emerging artist prizes, festivals, awards, profiles, exhibitions, and debuts, it can appear as though if success hasn’t come in youth, it won’t ever.
An unnameable dread or sense of shame is common to those that haven’t quite figured out what they want to do early in life, or are yet to achieve success early in life.
If it comes later, it tends to go unnoticed with the journey in between so often tainted. As Malcolm Gladwell explained in the New Yorker, while on the road to achievement the late bloomer resembles a failure.
‘Prodigies are easy. They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith.’
When a late bloomer does find their way into the spotlight, it begs the question of how many others have been prematurely judged as failures or lacking talent.
Just because your career doesn’t skyrocket by a certain age doesn’t mean you have failed. Yes, Mozart may have written his breakthrough Piano Concerto No. 9 at the age of 21, but when we compare ourselves, we lose sight of our own interests, talents, accomplishments and life circumstances.
Family, geographical, and financial circumstances, and experimenting with different career paths all contribute to when and how we bloom.
1. Louise Bourgeois, artist
As the following list proves, success is determined person to person, and there is no such thing as a deadline to achieve it – things happen when the time is right.
Blooming age: 70s
While actively creating work for most of her life, the French-American artist was mostly known in the art world as her husband Robert Goldwater’s arm candy well into her 50s.
Best known for her large-scale sculpture and installation art, she became a household name in her seventies and continued to work until she died at the age of 98 in 2010.
Bourgeois originally studied math and geometry before deciding on art. She opened her first solo exhibition in 1945 and joined the American Abstract Artists Group in 1954. Surrounded by male peers including Jackson Pollock, she often fought against anxiety attacks that came with balancing her artistic career with being a wife and mother.
She decided to often hide her work, but never destroyed it. As she quoted, late bloomer or otherwise, often we must learn to find enjoyment in the work itself. 'You learn for yourself not for others, not to show off, not to put the other one down, learning is your secret, it is all you have, it is the only thing you can call your own. nobody can take it away.'
In 1981, Bourgeois mounted her first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art and almost 20 years later, in 2000, she exhibited her iconic spider, Maman.
2. Susan Boyle, singer
Blooming age: Late 40s
This late bloomer captivated the world’s attention in 2009 when she sang on Britain’s Got Talent at 48. Despite being placed second in the television series, her first album, ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ became the year’s biggest seller and the Guinness Book declared her the oldest person in the UK to reach number one with a debut.
Boyle experienced learning difficulties and bullying as a child, and music became her refuge. Little did she nor her bullies know that she’d named by Time as the seventh most influential person in the world in 2010.
As Boyle’s story demonstrates, perseverance is key. ‘There are enough people in the world who are going to write you off. You don't need to do that to yourself.’
3. Kazuo Ohno, dancer
Blooming age: Late 40s
Japanese dancer Kazuo Ohno initially studied modern dance in 1933 before being drafted into the Japanese Army where he fought in China and New Guinea. After the war, he took up dance again, and presented his first solo works in 1949 in Tokyo at the age of 43.
Known as an inspirational figure in the dance form Butoh, he went on to create his own style and received Japan's prestigious Dance Critics' Circle Award for the performance La Argentina Sho.
Not only does Ohno fit the bill as a late bloomer, he demonstrates that we can return to our art after a time of absence, and better yet, we can continue to adapt and develop it.
In his late 90s, Ohno lost his ability to walk yet persevered and created new ways to express himself through dance solely by moving his hands and made his final public appearance in 2007.
4. Elizabeth Jolley, writer
Blooming age: 50s
A running theme for late bloomer writer seems to be a succession of odd jobs. Elizabeth Jolley worked as a nurse, cleaner, door-to-door sales person and even ran a small poultry farm while she wrote works of fiction on the side.
In her 1944 diary she wrote, ‘Oh god grant me the power to be a writer,’ revealing a recognisable combination of commitment and doubt. More than 30 years later, her first collection of stories was published.
Despite experiencing more than 39 rejections in one year alone, the English-born and WA-based writer went on to publish fifteen novels and four short story collections well into her 70s and taught creative writing to famous authors including Tim Winton at Curtin University.
5. Emily Kame Kngwarreye, artist
Blooming age: Late 70s
One of the most prominent contemporary Indigenous artists Emily Kame Kngwarreye didn't take up painting seriously until she was almost 80.
Despite her age, she was a prolific artist and produced over 3,000 paintings in her short 8-year career – the equivalent of a painting a day – and her style departed from the predominant Indigenous artistic style at the time.
She was born and lived in the Utopia community, 250 km north east of Alice Springs and much of her work was inspired by her cultural life as an Anmatyerre elder.
The overnight success and demand for her work is said to have caused problems within the Indigenous community with pressure from art collectors for her to paint in a certain way and constant approaches from inexperienced art dealers wanting a piece of the action.
6. John Marsden, author
Blooming age: Late 30s
Working in over 32 odd jobs before settling into teaching and later writing, renowned Australian young adult fiction author John Marsden published his first novel at 37.
In early adulthood, Marsden grappled with depression, and credits seeing a psychotherapist as the greatest turning point in his life. His first book, So Much to Tell You published in 1987 and was an instant hit and he went on to sell two and a half million books in Australia alone.
He has some comforting words for the late starter, as he says the best CVs are full of life experiences: ‘I want young people to be aware of all the different possibilities that life offers,’ he said.
‘I want them to recognise that there are many doors and they should have the right to knock on as many doors as possible and to have those doors open at least partially to them.’
7. Mary Delany, collage artist
Blooming age: 70s
Optimism for the late bloomer dates back to the 1770s when artist Mary Delany said: ‘An ingenious mind is never too old to learn.’
Embarking on her art in her 70s and creating a medium of her own, Delany created detailed and botanically accurate depictions of plants now held by the British Museum. Using paint, paper, and flowers, Delany is said to the first mixed media collage artist and is best known for her paper-cutting. She used tissue paper and hand colouration to produce these pieces, creating over 1,700 paper flowers.
As a widow, Mary Delany spent her time at home of her close friend, Duchess Margaret Bentinck, which was nicknamed “The Hive” as it became a place for artists and scientists who helped Margaret catalog her collections.
Being surrounded by artists encouraged her own creativity, showing that our own career trajectories can be inspired by those around us. ‘For this woman creative life was not a question of having a room of her own, but a cosmos of her own,’ wrote her biographer.
8. David Sedaris, author, radio commentator, comedian
Blooming age: 40s
International success David Sedaris worked odd jobs including as a Christmas elf at a department store before making his big break.
He made his National Public Radio debut at 44-years after being discovered by Ira Glass at an open-mic night in Chicago while he was reading a diary he kept since 1977. He later published his first collection of essays and short stories, Barrel Fever, in 1994. He has since contributed over 40 essays to The New Yorker.
His trajectory proves that sometimes it takes time and a bit of luck to be discovered. ‘I owe everything to Ira ... My life just changed completely, like someone waved a magic wand.'
It’s also comforting to hear that he would not have wanted success any earlier, instead he appreciates having time to perfect his craft: ‘I wouldn’t have wanted success any sooner because the writing was even worse.’
Despite his international success, Sedaris lives a humble lifestyle and is known for collecting rubbish in his local area.
9. Ken Done, artist
Blooming age: 40s
The now iconic artist Ken Done began his career in advertising, only to have his first solo art exhibition in his 40s.
When he was 14 he left school to study art before commencing a career as an art director and designer at 19. When he moved back to Australia after working in various advertising agencies in New York and London, Done returned to painting while juggling his role as Creative Director of J Walter Thompson in Sydney. At the age of 40, he took the leap and left advertising to pursue art full time.
Despite a keen dedication to painting now spanning several decades, Done remains best known for his design work and still fights to stigma of designing tea towels and t-shirts. His works have been shown in prestigious national awards including the Archibald, Sulman, Wynne, Blake, and Dobell Prizes. As art critic John McDonald said: ‘Anybody who has anything to do with him realises he is a very serious artist.’
10. Grandma Moses, folk artist
Blooming age: Late 70s
Also beginning her career while approaching her eighties, Grandma Moses’ paintings now feature in the collections of many museums and have reached $1.2 million at auction.
In her childhood, Moses painted using lemon and great juice to make colours for landscapes. From the age of twelve, she worked as a live-in housekeeper before marrying. She would express her creativity through embroidery before arthritis made this pursuit too painful when she was 76 years old.
It was her sister that suggested painting would be easier, and she also credits finally having the time. ‘I had always wanted to paint, I just didn’t have time until I was 78.’
Grandma Moses also reminds us to enjoy the process, and find contentedness in our everyday lives, with our without the accolades.
'I look back on my life like a good day’s work, it was done and I feel satisfied with it. I was happy and contented, I knew nothing better and made the best out of what life offered. And life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.'