A closer look at “The Art of Alzheimer’s: The Artist Within,” a 50-painting exhibit at Seattle City Hall that displays art created through the lens of dementia.
It all started with a bike ride.
Lynn Black and her husband, Dennis Black, were riding one afternoon in 2005. They agreed on an end point, and she was off.
It was an ordinary afternoon for the couple of 54 years, until it wasn’t. She arrived at their agreed-upon spot in the late afternoon, but her husband was nowhere to be found.
As the sun began to set, she became concerned. By dusk, she was very concerned.
“I was bicycling on the trail to try and find him,” she recalled. “When I finally did, he had gone beyond our meeting place. He was very confused and very frightened and realized he had gone beyond and was lost.”
That was when she became aware of her husband’s dementia.
A decade later, Dennis Black is among 43 people ages 60-101 living with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease whose work was chosen for “The Art of Alzheimer’s: The Artist Within” exhibition at Seattle City Hall.
Lynn Black said of her husband’s paintings, “He is a very gentle person and very strong character and they [his paintings] are all gentle and soft. It’s not a thinking process with dementia, it’s just the inner core of the person coming onto the paper. His heart and soul are in these watercolors.”
While most stories about dementia are ones of sadness, the 51-painting exhibition creates a new narrative — a story of hope and joy, said exhibition organizer and founder Marilyn Raichle.
Raichle said her inspiration for the exhibition came from her late mother, Jean McFee Raichle, who had Alzheimer’s. Her mother’s interactions with art helped Raichle move beyond her initial fears about her mother’s condition.
“She transformed things,” Raichle said of her mother’s artwork. “Flowers became clowns, and everything had a face! It’s pretty much changed my life, and I’ve become a huge advocate of creative art and creative aging programs to keep people connected and engaged.”
The art is predominantly watercolor; the possibilities are endless, but they are all beautiful.
“You will see the model and will see, for example, six different versions of sea creatures and you are going to see two different versions of yellow daisies,” Raichle said. “There are three self-portraits which is unusual but those are really interesting. It’s sort of all over the map, but all of it to me looks joyous.”
The art in the exhibition comes from various venues: group programs, individuals in the community who sent in their work, and art-based programs like Elderwise, an adult-day program, and the Frye Art Museum, which offers creative aging programs.
“The essence of who we are never changes,” said Rebecca Crichton, executive director of the Northwest Center for Creative Aging. “People are still here and the art they are doing and the experiences they are having is proof they are still present in their lives.”
There are currently over 5 million people living with Alzheimer’s disease in the United States, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The disease affects about 100,000 people in Washington state.
Raichle said that despite Alzheimer’s being the most feared disease in the U.S., people often don’t like to talk about it.
“From the outside, our fear creates all sorts of stories around who these people are, and how we don’t want to be like them,” Crichton said. “It’s important to break down these barriers we have when looking at people aging with dementia, and that we are still in relationship with them.
“An exhibit like this lets us have a conversation, see the experience, and helps with some of the fear,” she added.
Marigrace Becker, program manager of the UW Medicine Memory and Brain Wellness Center, said that Seattle is at the forefront of U.S. cities trying to establish a dementia-friendly community, or one that “creates a new story” of what it means to live with such conditions through art, fitness and other programs for patients.
“It’s the idea of living in the moment and creating and exploring and living a full life with dementia,” she said. “It’s been very energizing to see some perceptions change and when we work together as a community, we can really transform what it means to live with dementia.”
“The Artist Within” drew 200 people to the opening reception, one of the biggest opening nights to date at City Hall, Raichle said.
And Black’s husband, along with the other artists, was there with family and friends to take it all in.
“He [Dennis] was able to have a sense of pride in what he had done,” Black said. “He can feel happiness, he can feel love, he can feel joy. That is still there and that’s why I wanted to do it for him to experience that.”
“You never really thought of anyone as having dementia,” Raichle said of the artists during opening night. “You were just excited to see them and share their art.”