A peek into the art of Alzheimer’s patients illustrates distinct progressions from the onset of dementia.
This article is free of bias and is, in part, based on personal conclusions and professional experience in line with those of currently accredited medical organizations and mental health professionals as attributed below. Though I myself am a former mental health professional with training in Psychology, and I will share some relevant information regarding a personal related experience within this article, I am not a doctor and I offer no medical advice herein.
Please contact a currently practicing medical or mental health professional for any potential issue related to this article that requires attention.
Sources for this article include Wikimedia Commons, The Lancet (medical journal), Wikipedia.org, The New York Times, Dr. Bruce Miller, Illinois Wesleyan University, and Washington University’s Memory and Brain Wellness Center.
Originally published in medical journal The Lancet in 2001, the above William Utermohlen self-portraits have become widely considered in medical circles to be among our most graphic looks yet at Alzheimer’s progression through the eyes of a sufferer.
Utermohlen’s estate has made the paintings public for medical, educational, and media research purposes.
William Utermohlen was a U.K.-based American artist who passed away in 2007 at the age of 73. Following an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, he began producing a yearly series of self-portraits in an effort to experience and track the disease’s progression.
Utermohlen’s Wikipedia page, which includes this excerpt from a 2001 interview with journalist Margaret Driscoll on the creation of his self portraits while suffering from early dementia, is particularly telling: “Dementia makes me anxious because I like to produce good work and I know good work, but it's just so sad when you feel you cannot do it... It was in sense of opportunity to have something so interesting to happen to you... You have to approach something like this positively and throw yourself into it... It's not fighting back, you can't fight it. But I wanted to understand what was happening to me in the only way I can.”
Let us explore further.
Art and Memory
The New York Times featured a profile of Utermohlen in their October 24, 2006 edition, written by Denise Grady, entitled “Self-Portraits Chronicle a Descent into Alzheimer’s.” You can read that article here.
In her piece, Grady references a neurologist’s point of view: Dr. Bruce Miller, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies artistic creativity in people with brain diseases, said some patients could still produce powerful work. “Alzheimer’s affects the right parietal lobe in particular, which is important for visualizing something internally and then putting it onto a canvas,” Dr. Miller said. “The art becomes more abstract, the images are blurrier and vague, more surrealistic. Sometimes there’s use of beautiful, subtle color.”
For a further read of Utermohlen’s experience as an Alzheimer’s sufferer, Illinois Wesleyan University, through a digital commons license, has made publicly available their small book based on an exhibition of Utermohlen’s work, titled “Pursuing the Ephemeral, Painting the Enduring: Alzheimer’s and the Artwork of William Utermohlen.” The book can be found here, on the IWU.edu website.
A targeted Google search will reveal page after page of other Alzheimer’s sufferers, past and present, who have curated their art until they could no longer.
For example, a 2016 article from Washington University’s Memory and Brain Wellness Center website, “The Art of Alzheimer’s Wows Seattle,” discusses an exhibition of artwork from Alzheimer’s sufferers, and features images from that exhibition. See here.
I personally have had two relatives who have passed away from Alzheimer’s Disease: My uncle, Milton Kornfeld, and my grandmother, Pauline Block.
In December, 2020, NewsBreak published a piece I had written in honor of my grandmother, who I miss immensely and was never ever to say “goodbye” to in the way I wanted as she had long before lost most of her cognition.
However, there was another side to her struggle. My article was entitled “In My Opinion, My Grandmother Won Her Battle Against Alzheimer’s Disease,” and I detailed this former dancer’s constant smiling and proclamations about loving to dance during her dementia progression.
As excerpted from my article: My grandmother soon lost control of her bladder and then her bowels. She started losing control of her speech and did indeed forget our names. Including my dad’s. But to the good, we had noticed just how much dancing meant to her during the decline. As she could now no longer walk, she would move her feet in her wheelchair in sync with the music in her mind and say, to anyone listening, “I love to dance.” And she would then, like clockwork, offer up a huge, beaming smile.“I love to dance … I love to dance,” she repeated like a child.
The article goes on to explain that my grandmother used to dance her troubles away since she was a little girl. The earliest memories of Alzheimer’s patients, doctors say, are the ones that go last.
Though she could no longer speak, my grandmother in her Alzheimer’s universe was consistently laughing, hence my article’s title.
Dancing was her art, and like most Alzheimer’s artists she practiced her art for as long as possible — even if by only wiggling the toes on her feet towards the end as she rested in a supine position in a hospital bed.
Alzheimer’s Disease is an insidious ailment that robs victims of their cognition. Sometimes confused with asphasia, as suffered by actor Bruce Willis, Alzheimer’s organically attacks the brain.
For an explanation of specific differences, my article about Willis’ diagnosis can be seen here.
Further, the Alzheimer’s Association is a strong resource for information about the disease. Visit their website, which includes further contact information, at Alz.org.
I hope this article has helped. Thank you for reading.