The paradisal scenes were almost too extravagant to be believed; portraying a hidden world of eternal day filled with glorious cities and ethereal hills and valleys. At the very last I thought I saw signs of an artistic anti-climax. The paintings were less skillful, and much more bizarre than even the wildest of the earlier scenes. They seemed to record a slow decadence of the ancient stock, coupled with a growing ferocity toward the outside world from which it was driven by the desert.
–H.P. Lovecraft, The Nameless City
An estimated 5.8 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, so my wife is certainly not unique. She is somewhat unusual in that she was diagnosed young, at age 45. My wife is an artist, though to some extent an accidental one. When she was diagnosed, prospects of working full-time ended, so she had more time at home, especially after giving up her driver’s license. And, the changes in her brain seemed to open something up in her art, allowing for a level of creativity that she hadn’t often displayed previously.
She’s hardly the only artist with the disease. Perhaps the most famous was Willem de Kooning. Researchers have studied his art to gain insight into the disease. More recently, we have seen the progression of the work with other artists as well.
My wife is no de Kooning. She never worked as a professional artist, though when we met, she was teaching web and graphic design. But I have seen the progression of the disease in her work as well. For what it’s worth, here is another example from which the world might learn.
I should begin by saying that I have pretty much no art education or ability. I do however have the power of observation and I’ve seen the evolution of my wife’s artwork over the past few years as her Alzheimer’s disease has progressed. These are my observations.
Rebecca always had some artistic ability, but she rarely exercised it prior to her diagnosis. It may be that she thought she wasn’t as talented as her mother, who had studied art a bit in college. Rebecca sketched from time to time, but that’s about it.
Before our son was born in 2007, Rebecca and her mother painted his bedroom in a coral reef design. I don’t know who designed and colored which of the sea creatures, but they are realistic looking. See the pictures below. They include an octopus, a seahorse, a crab, Moorish Idols, and other ocean features.
Rebecca’s symptoms had probably become noticeable by around 2012. We got an appointment with a neurologist for headaches and short-term memory loss and after some tests, we were referred to UCSF so she could be evaluated for multiple sclerosis. When that was ruled out, we were referred to the Memory and Aging Center. She was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in July 2014. She had just turned 45.
Some time before she was diagnosed, she had taken up knitting. She was learning various patterns and the most complicated thing she made was a pair of socks for me. By that summer, she had moved to just doing hats, a very simple pattern that she could keep up with.
Gradually, the hats started getting a little big. Either her stitches were larger or she was losing count as her short-term memory diminished. She never said so to me, but I believe she told some friends that the counting was getting difficult. She moved on to artwork.
She started simply, with adult coloring books. Rebecca would sometimes refer to herself as a colorist and she would fill the pages with vibrancy. See below.
The adult coloring books didn’t last very long. Soon, she was creating her own designs. In the first several of these, the main thing you would see would be patterns of interlocking lines, seemingly unplanned, then filled in with vibrant color. Sometimes, she would call this “unintentional art.” I’ve now come to see these works through the lens of her disease. An artist might typically envision a piece, plan out its dimensions, the details and how to space each element to get the effect desired. Because of her limited short-term memory, she was no longer capable of planning out a piece in the same way. It is unlikely that she could have designed a landscape, portrait, or even a bowl of fruit. But the artistic sensibility remains, so she simply draws squiggly lines, seemingly meaningless, but often coming together in a way that seems planned anyway. Each section is put together individually because she is not able to plan it fully. With color added, they obtain a beauty nonetheless. She cannot plan a work, but knows what she considers beautiful.
As the months went on, she added identifiable elements within the squiggly lines. Eyes, tentacles, swirls, the sun, fish, snails, other sea creatures. My wife has always loved the ocean. She was a scuba diver, and would probably have become a dive master by now but for the Alzheimer’s. Although she lost her driver’s license in April 2015, she continued to scuba dive until 2017 with only minor cognitive problems inhibiting her performance.
She is still working within her limitations, little planning, but elements added one by one, with other squiggly patterns added in between, then color. The names of the pieces would come afterward as she looked at them. Sometimes, she let our son name them. He was six when she was diagnosed in 2014.
Sometimes, elements from our lives would make their way into the pieces. If the date on the “Hope for the Broncos” piece below is correct (sometimes she would mix up the months, days, and/or years), this would have been right before the Denver Broncos appeared in, and won, the Super Bowl. The Broncos are my favorite team. I’m not sure where the name “Lord of the Wild Ones” came from, but it could have been from our reading the book “Where the Wild Things Are” with our son.
“The Great Alaskan Outdoors” is named for the fact that I spent a couple of years in my childhood living in Alaska. If you look closely, you can see quite a number of creatures embedded within the piece, including a moose, common in Alaska, which I had occasionally mentioned as a favorite animal. “Reach” shows a theme of objects that seem to be reaching toward something, a pattern which can be seen in some later pieces as well.
Some of these pieces were featured in a couple of local art shows and won small awards.
In some of these, you have to look for some time to see all of the elements and patterns. But there are repeated themes, suns, sea creatures, fish, snails, indefinable eel-like animals, swirls. In a few, there are dark, foreboding elements, such as trees that appear to have monstrous qualities.
Eventually, there is some decline. There are more repeated elements, the sun in various colors, flowers. There are still several items in each piece, but they are less connected to one another. There is more white space and grass, but with not as much definition. There are several other pieces about this time with similar elements. As mentioned before, some items seem to reach toward each other.
Some time around September 2016, a little more than two years after her diagnosis, she switched to making bookmarks. They were initially large for bookmarks, but still, the scale was much smaller than previously. There are similar recurring themes, the sun, grass, flowers, small creatures.
Then though, the smaller scale allowed for her to add more color and she experimented with different designs and shapes for the bookmarks. There are recurring items, ants, the sun, arrows, etc. She colored several of these per day and we had some of them laminated. She doesn’t track the calendar and no longer remembers to add the dates most of the time.
Again though, there is decline. By February 2018 (note that the dates in the bookmarks below are incorrect) there is more white space, less definition, almost haphazard design.
By early June 2018, there is further decline. There is more white space, less symmetry, some almost seem halfhearted. At this point, even the artistic creativity is diminishing.
The artwork seems to have come to an end. In mid-June 2018, we took a trip to New Orleans on a train. She struggled quite a bit with several things, including her artwork. She didn’t have her paper cutter with her to make the right kind of bookmarks and was lost without it. I folded and tore some out for her, but she spent only a little time on them. After our return, she lost interest. While previously, she would watch television and make bookmarks for hours each day, she’s hardly touched them since the trip. After a seizure in November 2018, she could no longer be home alone, so she spends her day in an adult day care center while I am at work. Occasionally, they do art projects, but it is a substantial effort for her. Recently, they have noted that it has become more of a struggle for her to play piano as she once did.
Rebecca is now in stage 6 (of 7) of Alzheimer’s disease. In the last year, she has lost most of her vocabulary. She deals with a great deal of anxiety and frustration and though the artwork has gone, she still seeks ways to find joy in life. Singing has given way to (on pitch) humming and prolific art has turned to the occasional scribble. But we still have the work she did over the last few years to track both the progression of the disease and the beauty it helped make possible.
Photos courtesy of author