When dementia and all its various forms are discussed, it is often enveloped in a tone of sadness and a sense of longing for what used to be. Memory loss can be challenging for those who are grappling with it as well as for their loved ones. Marilyn Raichle understands this struggle quite well. Her mother, Jean, lived with Alzheimer’s for 16 years before passing away in 2015. To keep her active, Raichle took Jean to a class hosted by Elderwise, a nonprofit organization offering enrichment programs for people with memory loss. Despite her past declarations that painting was for kids, Jean took to the activity. In part, because she was starting anew.
“She started to transform things so gourds became fanciful little creatures and flowers became clowns,” said Raichle. “About three years in almost everything was perfectly symmetrical and tended to have a face. So it was fascinating just watching it.”
Seeing her mother’s talent challenged what she had been told by her parents about how to handle the situation when they would eventually be diagnosed with some form of dementia. Because Alzheimer’s runs in the family, she was told to not make any sacrifices and to walk away.
“We all pretty much believed it and then when I saw her paintings I went, ‘Oh no no. No, I was wrong. That’s not true,’” said Raichle. “I slowly became part of her new family because I can either keep trying to get her to come back to our family or I could join her. And so it was a process and I credit the art as giving me the gateway.”
Raichle also learned to let go of the person her mother used to be and embrace the woman who was with her now. One of her first lessons was not to start a conversation by asking her mother if she remembered something from the past, because in her view remembering is not the goal. While difficult, she preferred instead to focus on the present moment. That decision was a pivotal point for her.
Showing her mother’s art to others evolved into the exhibition called “The Artist Within,” on display at Seattle City Hall’s Anne Focke gallery. It’s the second time Raichle’s organization, The Art of Alzheimer’s, partnered with Elderwise to display works created by people living with dementia and Alzheimer’s. The current show features nearly 50 vibrant paintings by Julia Blackburn, Rosemary Freeman, Gloria Kinney, Jane Kippenhan, Pat Kristoferson, Lenny Larson and Rafe Schwimmer.
From self-portraits to landscapes to the abstract, each watercolor painting shows a different point of view. Larson grew up at the base of Mount Rainier and it’s reflected in his work. Flowers are another popular subject to depict.
Mollia Jensen is the program director at Elderwise. For more than 20 years the organization has provided a creative outlet through an adult day program that meets twice a week and through outreach programs.
“We facilitate in a unique way where we are very spacious and attentive to slowing down and listening a lot,” said Jensen. “If you walked in during our painting hour all you can hear is the tinkling of the brushes on the little jars and the water. Maybe a little breathing. It’s really nice.”
Each of the exhibition’s participants led full lives before circumstances changed. Larson co-founded Chicken Soup Brigade, a group that aims to improve the nutrition of people who are living with chronic conditions and hunger. Kippenhan was a painter and a docent for Seattle Art Museum. Prior to Schwimmer’s diagnosis he was an attorney.
Today he paints all the time in the basement of the home he shares with his wife. He likes to turn the music up to full volume while he’s painting. Bob Dylan is one of his favorite artists.
Schwimmer’s son Eli offers a potential reason in the gallery text. “Sound, color and memory are closely intertwined,” he shared. “When the music gets louder, his hands move faster. The tempo changes, so do the pace of his strokes. He’s not just painting, he’s conducting.”
Raichle describes the participants as being happy and fulfilled when they are creating. She shares a scene from opening night as further proof that while their memories may no longer be robust, they still find joy.
“Rafe [Schwimmer] was down here holding court in front of about 15 people explaining all the art and Lenny [Larson] was also doing this,” said Raichle. “The sense of accomplishment. The sense of pride and recognition does not go away just because someone has Alzheimer’s.”
After the show wraps up in March, the works will be split and sent to two locations, then come back together for a show in Yakima. Then they’ll head back to Seattle.
For Jensen, awareness around those living with memory loss is important along with acknowledgement of how much potential there is for creativity to express itself. Raichle agrees and is also on mission to bring the type of program Elderwise offers to a broader audience. Showcasing art is one way to convince people of the possibilities.
“Until we realize and think that people who have dementia or Alzheimer’s are valuable, we’re not going to put money into those programs,” said Raichle. “They’re still inventive and witty and well worth getting to know.”
WHAT: “The Artist Within”
WHEN: Runs until March 6
WHERE: Seattle City Hall, level L2, 600 Fourth Ave.
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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