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.