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Human Spirit Stays Alive on Canvas in Alzheimer's Art Show


Experts in the medical and art communities recently gathered in New York to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the identification of Alzheimer's disease, a progressive brain disorder that gradually destroys a person's memory, and discuss the role of art in Alzheimer's disease. The lecture complemented the art exhibit "Portraits and Promises in Alzheimer's Disease."

The dementia associated with Alzheimer's disease was once considered a normal part of aging. It is now recognized as a progressive degenerative condition.

The disease, first identified by Dr. Alois Alzheimer in 1906, is a type of dementia that affects the brain. It causes memory loss, and eventually leaves its victim unable to communicate and perform normal daily functions. The U.S. National Institute of Health estimates four million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's.

President of the New York Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, Lou-Ellen Barkan, says the threat posed by Alzheimer's disease is growing as the large baby-boom generation approaches age 65, when the chances of developing the disease increase.

"It will be the greatest health care crisis this country has ever known if nothing is done," Barkan said.

The lecturers discussed the work of William Utermohlen, an artist who suffers from Alzheimer's disease. The exhibit was developed as an innovative way to increase community awareness of the impact of Alzheimer's on the diagnosed individual, caregivers and loved ones.

Utermohlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1995. For the next five years, until 2000, he made portraits of himself in oil paints and pencil that gallery owner Chris Boicos says give a visual documentation of how and when certain abilities were lost.

"From the portraits that he painted, we can learn a lot about how someone suffering from the disease thinks about it, sees themselves inside, which is extraordinary as most Alzheimer's patients can't really express themselves verbally," he said.

In his series of self-portraits, Utermohlen gradually disappears on the canvas as his condition advances.

Eventually, the paintings take on a primitive style. They show few definitive facial lines and features, less color and vibrancy characteristic of his earlier works.

Boicos says Utermohlen's self portraits should be shown widely because they offer an alternative to the medical assessment of the disease.

"I think it is important that the pictures be exhibited and be exhibited in as many places as possible because they offer the public at large a more direct, perhaps more psychological and emotional apprehension of the disease and they can actually see someone who is ill retain his whole emotional capability," he said. "It's an apprehension of the disease that is not simply scientific or medical or dry or neutral. It is very much a human experience and I think this is really what the portraits best convey."

Many patients in the late stages of Alzheimer's lose the ability to communicate verbally, a function primarily controlled by the left side of the brain.

Dr. Bruce Miller studies artistic creativity in people afflicted with brain diseases. He says as Alzheimer's attacks the brain's verbal functions, even patients who had no previous inclination toward art began to express themselves visually.

"Sometimes these patients are compelled to draw," he said. "A woman from Malaysia came into my office and she said sit down. And I sat down and she just started drawing. This is one of the extraordinary things about some of these patients is this compulsion, this need to draw that comes on in the setting of this focal degeneration of the left anterior temporal lobe."

Miller says Utermohlen's work illustrates what he sees in many of his patients with dementia.

"I think you see in this story what you see with many people with Alzheimer's disease, which is that despite the illness, there's still life, genius, creativity and people express what they can with what's left," he said.

Lou-Ellen Barkan of the Alzheimer's Association says, while there is not yet a cure for Alzheimer's, the artwork offers hope.

"We know that one aspect of the human spirit is the capacity for self reflection and these paintings make it clear that even as Alzheimer's disease progresses, there is no immediate loss of self, that there are ways to stay connected to the world and to those we love. Life is not over with an Alzheimer's disease diagnosis, but getting that diagnosis is absolutely critical if people want to stay actively involved in the world," Barkan said.

Some doctors and advocates believe art may allow patients to emerge from the silence of the disease and find a way to communicate visually. Those pictures may be worth a thousand words, providing much needed insight for medical professionals, family and caregivers trying to understand how the disease attacks the brain, and how patients view themselves.