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Posts tagged ‘children’s art’

The Broken Brain, the Healing Heart

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.






O What a Life, Part IV Extraordinary Changes, B

All of us endure change throughout our lives, our personal Möbius strip nicked and buckled but not torn apart. At least not yet, if we’re still alive. Here are more of the extraordinary changes through which I’ve lived and born witness.

The day my sister nearly drowned. It was not done with malice or forethought, but I’d nearly killed my baby sister. The day was melted-cheese hot and sticky in New Jersey, and we three kids splashed in our tiny in-ground pool. My little brother and I roughhoused so hard the resultant waves smashed our toddler sister’s head against the edge of the pool. She passed out. Unaware of her injury, my brother and I continued to play. Mom finally saw that she wasn’t floating but drowning and pulled her limp, blue-gray body from the water. Thank God dad was home and not at the hospital or on a house call. It was years before the development of CPR and all he had to rely upon to save his youngest daughter’s life was the often ineffective artificial resuscitation technique and determination not to lose his baby girl. He revived her, and he and mom rushed off to the hospital to make sure she was all right. I never learned to swim well but both my siblings glide like dolphins. I weep for those who have lost children to accidents or illnesses.

Driving with my mom through the poorest part of Trenton, New Jersey to pay wages to our black maid. We rode through neighborhoods increasingly more rundown until we came upon a group of sooty red brick, three-story apartments built around a circular park the size of a large home garden. Women yakked and gestured as they perched on stone stoops, their dark legs projected from dresses of fuchsia, navy, burnt orange, and golden hued cotton. Men smoked cigars, sauntering on the sidewalks in shined brown wingtips, their thumbs gripping suspenders stretched over their tee shirts. Kids in rolled-up dungarees ran across the park, kicking balls and wiggling hula hoops, yelping, chortling, dodging each other. Laughter and shouts filled the space, waves of noisy friendships. Mom searched for the right house number. We got out of the car as a hundred pair of eyes watched us. Our young maid answered our knock and held out her hand for her pay, her neighbors eyeing us from under tense brows, but silent. Were the buildings privately owned tenements or government housing? I didn’t know but I witnessed a lifestyle impoverished of material comforts but wealthy with community, and saw that I was the stranger.

Visiting the arts and crafts show the retarded kids produced. In the basement of our school a classroom hidden from the rest of the student population housed a group of retarded children. Once a year, we “normal” kids from all grades walked through their classroom, looking at the arts and crafts projects the kids had made – looped pot holders, Popsicle stick bird houses, watercolor paintings of the seashore, small stuffed pillows with button decorations, animal collages, punched tin trays, drawings of trees and circuses, lanyards of red, purple, and black vinyl. I don’t know how many kids were in the class. They were never in attendance when we marched through their class; we never saw the kids themselves. We heard the word retarded. I wanted to be in the retarded class with the kids who got to make all the art projects. How lucky could they be?

The day I won my first art award at six. I’d drawn a playground safety poster, and after sobbing my eyes out over a glaring mistake in the drawing, turned it into a different image. That cobbled artwork caught the attention of the judges who decided I’d expressed precocious insight. The day I won a writing award based on a university exam, although I was still in grade school. It was supposed to have guaranteed me a place at Rutgers University but we moved to California before I could claim my prize. The day I won a middle school writing competition for a story about freedom. The Daughters of the American Revolution had read more patriotism into my words than I’d intended. The story, Fire High for Life, was loaded with purple prose and unlikely heroic deeds, an utterly forgettable melodrama. The worst part of the event is that I’ve long lost the bronze award pin. The best is that I’ve also lost the story. I discovered I am a writer and an artist, maybe still too garish and amateur, but sincere.

Watching Nikita Khrushchev bang his shoe at the United Nations. The TV evening newscast and the front page of the newspaper showed the Soviet premier at the noble curved desk of the international congregation of world peace, his shoe gripped above his head, his mouth open in one of his tirades. Even today people disagree about the incident, about whether it was a shoe he raised or just his fist, about whether or not the Russian tyrant had so besmirched the United Nations or only expressed his valid opinion. All over the United States people built bomb shelter, and children practiced covering and ducking in their classrooms in anticipation of atom bombs being launched into our country. The Red Menace lurked everywhere, or so some insisted. I believed all wars were over, and I did not cower at Red threats. I thought the world was “too old to behave that way.” Ten-year-olds knew better. Could I have been more wrong about anything?