Savannah Artist Proves There’s No Such Thing as Too Late or Too Old

I met Bill Rousseau at the City Market Art Center. My family was walking through the studio galleries, marveling at the talent and weeping at the beauty we couldn’t bring home. Some of us wept inwardly while some of us, namely Emma, cried very outwardly at the injustice of not being able to buy watercolor portraits and masterpieces painted in acrylic.

But back to Bill.

Bill was upstairs in the Art Center in Studio 5, quietly looking down his nose through his large glasses as he painted a layer of dense shrubbery in front of an old Savannah home. The one-room gallery in which he sat was filled with framed oil portraits of historic homes. The studio smelled slightly of wet paint.

“Do we have budding artists here?” the white-haired man at the easel asked upon hearing Devin and Emma comment on the various portraits and beg for one to take home.

“We do,” I said.

The artist turned from his painting and leaned closer to Emma, who was obviously enthralled with the process. “Would you like to help me with this painting?” She nodded, and he handed her a brush tipped with fresh white paint. “Here,” he pointed to an area – a shockingly large area – on his developing masterpiece and instructed Emma to make small white dots where she thought flowers should go.

I held my breath in anticipation, a mixture of pride, joy and fear beating in my chest as I watched my daughter, the budding artist, leave her mark on this man’s work. When she finished, he thanked her and she grinned sheepishly. He turned to my son and asked if he, too, wanted to be an artist.

“I want to be a scientist.”

“Oh, that’s a very good thing,” said the artist. “I was a scientist.”

Devin’s eyes lit up and my instincts buzzed. An artist scientist?

A few minutes later, my family and I were leaving the gallery when my instincts tugged at me. “I, uh, I need to go back,” I told Jared. “I’ll catch up to you guys.” Devin, my budding scientist, followed me back.

I cautiously stepped into the studio, apprehensive about intruding on the artist’s space, time and life story. “Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you, but, uh…” how do you explain that you’re kind of obsessed with ordinary people who do extraordinary things? “I’m, uh, I’m a writer.” That always seems to be a good opening. After a little more stumbling and questioning on my part, the artist scientist began to tell me his story.

His name is Bill Rousseau and he began his working life as a scientist working in engineering and applied math. He didn’t hate it and wasn’t mediocre, which you might expect upon hearing he’s since become a painter. In fact, he was very good at being a scientist and engineer. He was the Director of Technologies for United Technologies, which equates to being a very big deal in the field.

“I had a very good career,” Bill said with a smile and not an ounce of resentment or regret.

And then, at 55, he retired and enrolled in art school.

In 2002, he and his wife moved from Syracuse, New York to Savannah, Georgia where Bill could enroll in the Savannah College of Art and Design. Bill had always enjoyed painting and figured it was time to do what he loved.

“Why would you go to school?” I asked. “Why not just paint if that’s what you liked to do?”

“I didn’t think I was good enough yet.”

Bill wanted to paint in the style of the old masters and SCAD, he said, has a very good program for teaching that style. He admitted that his former career had allowed him and his wife to save enough money to support the move and change in lifestyle. And yet as I spoke with him, he was sitting in front of a portrait that would be hopefully be sold for several hundred dollars in a gallery that requires rent and utilities and financial support.

“Why not just paint?” I asked again. “I mean, why turn it into a business?”

“I like meeting people and talking to people, but mostly I love the idea of someone else loving my work and hanging it in their home. The idea of my paintings being in someone’s home is a real thrill for me.”

We chatted a little more and then I thanked Bill for his time and went on to catch up with my family. Later that day, while we combed the shelves of a local art supply store for acrylic paint and canvas pads for the kids, I heard Devin marvel aloud at what he’d heard back in the art gallery.

“Man, he’s done everything I love. Science, math, and art. I didn’t know you could do all those things!”

“Baby, you can do whatever you want,” I told him. “And remember that you don’t have to do anything forever. It’s never too late to change your mind and do something different.”

He nodded and picked out a paint brush.

This story is featured in An Amateur’s Guide to the Pursuit of Happiness.

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Comments

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  1. naomi says:

    beautiful. love his work, his attitude about life and the fact that one person can so easily inspire little ones just by telling their story.

  2. Momma says:

    Savannah is Heaven. Just Heaven. I remember those artist studios, and the way they treated us-as if WE’RE fascinating people too!

  3. pocket_queen says:

    Wow. Just a few days into this adventure and your family is already picking up great life lessons! This is sure to be one huge life learning lesson. Kudos to you all!

  4. This is why you need to write a book. You are such a good storyteller. You have only just begun to have encounters like this all over the country. You had a completely different experience with this man because of the kids.

  5. Alecia says:

    I’m not even sure WHY this brought tears to my eyes, but it did. I love the simple beauty of a life well-lived, and thank you for sharing the stories you’re encountering along the way.

  6. Val Joiner says:

    Really enjoyed this post! You captured your encounter so well. I love that you took the time to go back and find out more about him and that you were able to turn it into an “Aha!” moment for your kids. I hope to go into our full-time adventure with that vision. Glad you’re having a good time in GA. Stop by and say high to us if you make towards Atlanta. — V

  7. The points of your story breath a fresh air in a world that has somehow confused goals for life sentences.

  8. Headless Mom says:

    Bill sounds awesome, and it’s so cool that Devin got to SEE and meet someone that embodies everything that he’s interested it.

    Your trip is betting better and better, me thinks.

  9. Loukia says:

    Awesome. My mom quit her job as a medical secretary and started painting full-time. Her career just took off after that. She had guts and I guess if you really put your mind to something, it can be done, right? Passion, the right attitude, and letting go of that fear!

  10. Lisa says:

    I love this story because it gives me hope. This is what I want, exactly. God I would love to go to art school!

    It’s so cool how Devin turned this over and over in his head. This is an experience that will stay with him for a long time.

  11. Terrific story. Artist at SCAD from Scientist at United Technology a great move supported by HUGE dollars to pay for that school I liked his comment about having his work hanging in other people’s homes. I have both Watercolors and photography hanging in other peoples homes. Maybe I need to do a story on that.

    Eileen

  12. I don’t think enough parents tell their kids the part about it never being too late to change your mind. I’m so glad you did. Having re-invented myself many times over, I’m a great believer that as life goes on, what is important to us changes, and kids coming out of high school having to make decisions about what to do with their lives (at least in the US there’s wiggle room) is the most unrealistic thing I have ever come accross.

    This was a woderful post Britt. Thank you. And tell Devin that I concur, he can be absolutely EVERYTHING he wants to be!

  13. Nanna says:

    Gosh. I’m during at lunch reading this on my phone imagining Devin’s voice and facial expression. And Emma’s concentration when she was painted. I think we live in Magic.

  14. Cindy says:

    Very inspiring story, love the post. For somebody who already have a successful career, he must really love painting and have long dreamed becoming an artist. I’ve always fascinated with old people doing something what most of us will consider already little late in life and probably impossible, he even get back to school in an old age.

  15. Marcia says:

    What a great story….it is such a pleasure and privilege to be able to take in such much of what you are seeing. Such an education for all of us.

  16. I just love your posts.

  17. What a great lesson for your kids. I try to tell my kids this all the time – you can do anything, anytime. I went through college thinking I wanted to follow one career, then ended up in something completely different, then ended up floundering and bouncing around… and I am still reinventing myself. We’re all works in progress – all the time.

  18. anymommy says:

    I love this post and I love following your adventure from afar.

  19. bill, if you are reading this, thank you for taking the time to share your story with my friends. and thank you for being patient with the kids, for truly encouraging their artistic sides. you are truly an inspiration, one i am grateful for.

    britt, thank you for sharing bill with us in the way that only you can. terrific post.

  20. [...] People and places can surprise you. Even if you don’t have the time to learn the back story, remember that there always is [...]

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