Sparked by Words

My mother suffered with Alzheimer’s for the last years of her life. She lived in a residence with hundreds of other folks who had memory loss. One was a wonderful man I’ll call Ben. Ben had been an artist before he became ill with Alzheimer’s. An intelligent, talented man who worked in various media, he pursued art as a passionate avocation all his life. He continued to create beautiful watercolor paintings all the years he lived at the residence.

As an art teacher for many decades, I explained to my students that creating art was an experience of Head, Hand, Heart – our class motto.  The Head is what we know or see of our world, the Hand is the education about color, composition, and holding a paintbrush.

The Heart is the most important element. This is where a master artist transports the viewer beyond the canvas or marble into his vision, where his creative impact lifts an ordinary entity into something luminous. Who doesn’t stand with their mouth open at the sight of Michelangelo’s Pieta, of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Oriental Poppies? The allure of the intuited essence of life emanating from these masterpieces resonates with viewers. We hold our breath for a moment of sacred transcendence.

Who doesn’t stand with their mouth open at the sight of a toddler’s first drawing of a person, a wobbly roundish shape with eyes and mouth, arms and legs sticking out from the face like misplaced star rays because the body is missing. It isn’t that the body is actually missing, but what’s most striking about people to the youngest child are the very features she’s drawn. She’s skipped the unessential – the corpus – and gotten right to the crux of what informs her world – a face with its multitude of expressions, the limbs with their ability to move. Her Head and Hand are still learning but her Heart is in full mastery of its skills. We hold our breath for a moment of sacred transcendence.

You must understand this in order to grasp the following story about an artist betrayed by mental infirmities.

My mom and I frequently participated in the art programs, where we often worked beside Ben. I especially enjoyed watching him paint as every move was deliberate. He contemplated each stroke, color, and detail. I wondered if he’d worked with such thoughtful resolve even before he became ill with Alzheimer’s, or if the disease imposed a handicap that was a new challenge to his creative outlet. Maybe when younger and healthier, he’d painted quickly, though I suspect a precise focus had always informed his art.

As Ben’s physical health declined and the Alzheimer’s tortured his brain, painting became more arduous for him. He had a harder time concentrating and sometimes couldn’t make a decision about what color to use or what area to paint next. Even choosing a brush and lifting his hand demanded attention his brain didn’t willingly allow. Each move became an exercise in willpower over limitation.

His very last painting was of Monument Valley, the iconic desert in Utah. He used a photo as a reference and started with realistic images of the familiar tall buttes and the flat topped mesas in burnished shades of gold, orange, and brown. Over the weeks, as he became more ill and confused, the layered sandstone structures mutated into city skyscrapers with windows, doorways, and rooftops. Even his colors changed to ruby, emerald, and sapphire. The painting looked like two disparate images randomly assembled: a sublime southwest desert vista on the left, a garish and frenetic eastern megalopolis on the right.

Ben died only a few days after he’d completed the painting. His family disliked it and nearly didn’t take it with them. I explained how Ben had struggled to interpret the desert photo and finally decided he was looking at modern city skyscrapers. Advanced Alzheimer’s made a mockery of the man but the artist fought back with his will to create. They realized that the painting was less an anomaly of artistic expression and more a visual demonstration of how the brain declines but also re-imagines the corporeal world. With tears dampening their cheeks, they took home the painting that graphically displayed Ben’s deteriorated brain, knowing his Heart had been intact until the end.

We hold our breath for a moment of sacred transcendence.

 

Monument Valley photo courtesy of Pixabay

My thanks to Peggy Bright of Australia who writes Where to next? blog, for the memory and inspiration for this article.

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments on: "The Broken Brain, the Healing Heart" (48)

  1. Oh my goodness, Sharon, I’m so touched and humbled that my post was the inspiration for this piece. You’ve told this story beautifully. I’m so glad you had the chance to convince Ben’s family that it was important for them to take the painting.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Peggy, I’m so glad you were the first to read and respond to this post as your post about visiting this area in Utah reminded me about Ben’s last painting. The entire episode was serendipitous – that I’d witnessed as he continued to paint for so many days an image that challenged him, and then that I happened to be there when his family saw the painting and was distressed about it. Ben was a lovely man and an artist to his last hour.

      Blogging is a wonderful way to meet people.

      Liked by 4 people

      • How amazing that I am reading your reply just after returning from a volunteer stint at a nursing home. I run the weekly shop that offers snacks, toiletries and other basics. I also do the shopping, so can cater for special requests. This week someone asked for a booklet of cryptic crosswords.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Your population is very different from the folks who live at the residence where my mom and Ben lived. I volunteered there as well, leading some religious services, doing art and crafts, and helping at meals. It’s such a rewarding activity as the residents are so sweetly grateful. I intended to return and volunteer on a more regular basis – but I find I can’t do it. Too painful. Maybe I’ll do something in future but right now, I’m still grieving. Blessings on your head, Peggy, for all you do. I know it’s much appreciated.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Sharon, I can imagine how hard it would be to return to help at this time. I started helping at this nursing home eight years ago to support a friend whose mother was there. My friend started the shop and asked all her friends to pitch in. Funnily enough, my friend is no longer involved, but three of her ‘recruits’ are still participating.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That’s an interesting story, Peggy. We do often move beyond those who inspire us – your friend must be basking in the glow of what she started.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you Sharon for this beautiful post. It shows love on so many levels.
    Yours for your mum. Ben’s for his art…
    Above all shimmers the strength of the heart and will to live through difficulties
    as good as you can. To continue as long as heart and ability can.

    miriam

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Shari, you gave Ben’s family a special and heartwarming gift in explaining about his last painting and I imagine it is still treasured by them.

    My heart and mind raced with emotions whilst reading your touching post. The cruelty of this disease so vividly described but I found the courage of Ben, his will to paint to the last uplifting. What a battle inside him, and yes a transcendence as his heart remained intact.

    You must have lived many a lifetimes in your visits to not only your mother but everyone else there as well … thank you for sharing … your post has given me much to ponder. Hugs xx

    Liked by 2 people

    • Your comment is gracious, Annika. So many people used to ask me if my mom had died for me, as most people have no understanding about Alzheimer’s disease unless they are intimately involved with a loved one who has it. My mom did not die even though she changed in so many ways. (Until of course she died on March 30.) She was still my mom throughout the course of her illness, and in many ways, we became closer than we’d ever been.

      Likewise I had the honor and pleasure of becoming friends with many of the other residents who suffered from the disease even though I’d never known them when they were healthy. It is always heartbreaking when they pass but it must also be a relief to be lifted from such confusion.

      Thank you for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. what a wonderful observation – one that gives hope that we are not limited to what we see or do (if only we’d stop building our identities around just these faculties of the eye-plugged-into-the-brain and hand-controlled-by-the-brain) but also what we can be (the heart is not the brain, it is the mind, something of us which is completely unbounded by physicality, if only we’d let it thrive so) – what a wonderful affirmation

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M Lewis, for such insight into this condition and the people who suffer from it. You are right that the essence (their soul perhaps) of who they are remains and in some cases, that essence gains strength even as their body declines.

      Like

  5. Beautiful and poignant. My mother-in-law died of Alzheimer’s three years ago – it is such a cruel disease- yet in her final months she was as sweet and loving, earnest and expressive as I’d ever known her. I am so sorry for your loss- the pain never goes away. xoxo Julie

    Liked by 1 person

    • Julie, I’m sorry for your loss. The pain doesn’t go away, but the brunt of it retreats in time. Though I’m sorry your mother-in-law had Alzheimer’s, I’m glad you have so many wonderful memories of her – as I do of mine.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh, Sharon–well done. Bravo. This brought tears to my eyes. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. What an amazing story. I’d love to see that painting. I don’t understand leaving it behind (and they finally took it) but everyone has reasons–they don’t have to be mine.

    Thanks for this, Shari.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ben was always so assured of what he was painting. Even grievously ill with Alzheimer’s, his artistry exhibited mastery. His last painting, without explanation about how he painted it, looked rather freakish. I am honored to have been a part of the moment that allowed his family to see the true value of his Monument Valley. Jacqui, thank you for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Jenna Barwin said:

    I’m glad you were there to help the family see the beauty and meaning in the painting. Such acts of kindness and insight go a long way to making this a better world despite the ravages of a terrible disease like Alzheimer’s.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Ben’s family was blessed to have you speak into their hearts. I envy artists and would hope they all receive the support of family, even at the end of their creating…
    Hugs, Shari. This post shows your compassion for others. There’s never been any doubt. ♡

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are so sweet, Audrey. Thank you for such kindness, about Ben and about me. Ben’s family loved him dearly and were devastated when he died, they just didn’t understand that last painting until I explained what had happened.

      Like

  10. Do you think natural talent stays with a person even though his or her mental health is declining?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glynis, that’s a really interesting question, one I’m unqualified to answer. Certainly in every person there is a spark of who they have always been, though they may change in dramatic, sometimes unrecognizable ways. It’s important to honor that innate spark and not be disrespectful. I’ll have to do some research about your question.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Seeing that natural talent is something a person is born with, common sense tells me the person retains it even if there’s a decline. Please tell me what you find out, okay?

        Like

      • I will, Glynis, as you’ve piqued my interest. But it may be a while before I find scholarship about this. Alzheimer’s studies focus more on finding prevention and cure.

        Like

  11. Sharon, I’m so glad you helped Ben’s family see the beauty and profound poignancy of his last painting. His true Self was emerging through his diseased brain to the very end.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Shari,
    I read each and every comment and I echo all the sentiments expressed. It’s a beautiful post and the depth of your soul was expressed through his story.

    I believe that ultimately artistic vision comes from God and is a spiritual expression. Ben was bridging the human world and the spiritual realm and perhaps that is what he was expressing. It is also my faith that the soul is eternal and even as the mind may deteriorate the soul remains and often helps direct its expression in mysterious ways.

    I hold dear the Baha’i explanation:

    “All art is a gift of the Holy Spirit. When this light shines through the mind of a musician, it manifests itself in beautiful harmonies. Again, shining through the mind of a poet, it is seen in fine poetry and poetic prose. When the Light of the Sun of Truth inspires the mind of a painter, he produces marvelous pictures. These gifts are fulfilling their highest purpose, when showing forth the praise of God.” – ‘Abdu’l-Bahá,

    Liked by 2 people

  13. This story has touched me very much, Shari. Reading about Ben’s struggle to fight the disease and keep painting, to transform what is in his head onto the canvas makes me feel the pain behind it all, the pain that is in painting. And I’m so glad you were there and witnessed it, so you could open the hearts of his family to this his last painting. I would love to see it but your words did a wonderful job and I think I can imagine what it might look like, or more accurately: my heart does. Because you’re so right when you say that the heart is the most important part when creating art.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was mostly a serendipitous experience, that I had the honor of watching Ben paint that final difficult painting. Also that I was right there when his family first saw the painting and couldn’t make sense of what they knew about Ben’s talent. My heart was touched by Ben and his family.

      I’m sure you realize that for privacy issues, I can’t show you the painting, nor tell you Ben’s real name.

      Like

  14. It’s interesting how on one hand we’re fortunate to have folks around who remember us at our finest — on the other hand, it can be a burden to not be accepted as one is right now…

    Like

    • People who suffer from Alzheimer’s express a range of emotions depending on the state of their disease. I think Ben was very confused about what he was trying to paint but the passion for art was always with him.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. What a deep and touching post. I had no idea that the brain could be affected in such a way where he could no longer paint as he once did.

    Shows you how naive about this. Heartbreaking post.

    Like

    • Those of us who stand close by the side of a loved one who suffers from Alzheimer’s are aware that unless you know from personal experience, you know nothing about the disease. The commercials for Alzheimer’s medications show such a complacent and artificial view of people who suffer, but how would anyone not personally familiar know that? Being naive is how most everyone is – no fault of yours.

      Like

  16. Sharon, you captured the essence of this disease causing me to realize how closely you empathized with you mother as she went through this journey, She was so fortunate to have you by her side, with your patience and understanding to help her along the way. I would have loved to have seen Ben’s painting but your description brought it into my vision. Thank you for this piece of writing so touching on many levels.

    Like

    • Thank you, Clare, for this comment that warmed me. I often stumbled as I tried to be there for my mom, but yes, I did stand by her side through all of it.
      I’v’e missed you on your site and hope you’ll be returning soon.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. This is so incredibly moving. Wow…I have to take a moment to process.

    Like

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