The Art of Alzheimer’s

Sea Creatures (via
Sea Creatures (via

There’s an inspiring exhibition right now at Seattle City Hall that deals with Alzheimer’s and dementia. The works on paper were created by artists aged 60 – 101, all of whom are living with some stage of the disease.

Please notice that I didn’t write “suffering from”…they are “living with” this disease, and that kind of distinction is important to this exhibition. The curator, whose mother is one of the 50 or so artists in the show, sets out to tear down the sense of hopelessness that the word “Alzheimer’s” conjures up, and to offer an alternative view of Alzheimer’s patients: that they are people who are capable of happiness and joy, who are still interested in creating, who are still living with us. This is radically different from the usual point of view that focuses on the people they “used to be”, and the losses the people around them suffer when they take this perspective.

This is also different from the prevailing views on aging in general. About three years ago, I received a grant to teach art at a senior center in Manhattan. As part of the training leading up to entering the classroom, we artist-teachers met with leaders in the field of aging, as well as various city officials. I’ll never forget one specialist who said that “Aging is a series of losses” and proceeded to list them all: loss of eyesight/hearing/taste, loss of friends, loss of mobility, loss of health, etc. I remember feeling a little jolt to have it all laid out like that, and feeling a young person’s guilt that I’d never considered it that way. I felt a little sorry, and moved on with that information.

But is it only a series of losses? I’ve also read about couples who felt freedom…to enjoy the benefits of spoiling grandkids without any of the hassles of raising them, to travel at a moment’s notice, to have the time to delve into a hobby or go back to school, to enjoy sex without anyone in the house or the worries of pregnancy.

This exhibit doesn’t look at the so-called losses. A panel discussion that included social workers, a doctor, a patient and her husband stressed the vitality of these patients and artists and encouraged a paradigm shift. The doctor said that once basic survival needs are met, the goal should absolutely be to strive to meet the other basic, human need: for self-expression (this, from a medical doctor! I was thrilled). Alice, the patient, took the microphone to say that she was happy. She said she understood that people worried about Alzheimer’s but that she herself was too busy enjoying her life to worry about it. She was delightful.

Now a word about the artwork. It’s moving. Some of it you’ll remember after the show, for the liveliness and joie-de-vivre in the paint handling. Some pieces are a little haunting, but all of them show a curiosity and effort at capturing a mood, a moment. To be sure, many of these watercolors (and a few collages) seem to look inward, capturing a hidden, interior moment, like a triptych that categorizes near-taxonomic details of a still life of fish on a plate. Other versions by different artists of this still life yielded goldfish swimming (above), and fish bones. Most of the pieces are watercolor, mostly using wet-on-wet technique and some printing or stamping techniques. The colors are vibrant, for the most part, with lots of primaries.

This is a rare show where you think of the artist before the artwork…(Not many can say that, besides the Van Goghs of the world). But the artwork holds up as beautiful expressions of their own. At least two people at the show mentioned aloud that they would have bought pieces if they’d been for sale. You can’t look at this show without thinking of the creators and clearly seeing people behind the diagnoses.