dementia in art

How does the dedicated lifelong artist keep creating art when their brain is losing gray matter? A recent exhibit at ArtisTree Gallery in
South Pomfret, called TRIO: Exploring Dementia provided a glimpse into this process. Three Upper Valley artists who had established themselves professionally with their vast array of works in many mediums were represented in this exhibit. All had some form of dementia. All were women and all recently passed away. A representation of their best works hung from the gallery walls, an impressive display of talent. Their later works told the story of decline in their ability to fully use the skills that were so vital in their lives as professional artists.

art by betsy goldborough

Art by Betsy Goldborough

The idea for this exhibit came from a nationally recognized artist’s daughter, Jean Goldsborough of Reading, Vermont. Her mom, Betsy Goldsborough moved to Woodstock Terrace assisted living facility as it became clear she could not manage to live on her own safely. Her family noticed symptoms of dementia as early as 2009. The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease came in 2015. Her daughter, aware that continuing to create art could be a source of stimulation and pleasure, discovered the art workshop offering for seniors at ArtisTree and encouraged her mother to attend. She did and it was a godsend.

art by betsy goldborough

Art by Betsy Goldborough

No longer able to manually maneuver pastels, she took up a brush and created art  with watercolors on these Friday morning workshops. Those works hang next to her earlier works. A friend who accompanied me to this exhibit said with awe just how quickly she got to the end point after looking at the selection and dates of Betsy’s art. A pastel portrait of her daughter, Jean as a very young girl is striking in its detail and beauty. Betsy did hundreds of portraits. She contributed her talents to several art-related boards in the Baltimore area and taught art classes in her studio. Betsy painted up to 12 days before she died in March of 2018. She was 86.

Margaret McCracken, one of the three artists whose works are on display at this exhibit at ArtisTree, fought a shorter battle. She died at 66 years old, also a resident of Woodstock Terrace. Her form of dementia was especially cruel. Her neurological degenerative brain disease (PSP) eventually deprived her the use of her hands. Examples of her stained glass creations cover one wall of the gallery. There are some watercolors and some beaded earrings, as well. In one corner hangs a very late work looking like two columns of lines in two colors. Joan Columbus, a Woodstock artist of note (www.joancolumbus) was most impressed by this representation. “There’s a core. It’s illuminating. It just might be a self-portrait. I love it,” she said.

Art by Margaret McCracken

Margaret was a skilled stain glass artist who sold large pieces commercially. There was a probe into her exposure to toxic lead in her studio, contributing later to her dementia. It was never proved. Once Margaret could no longer manage the work required in the stain glass creations, she turned to watercolors and kept up her love of photography exploring digital capabilities. The last six years of her life her skills were so compromised, she could not do all the forms of art that previously defined her. Brenda Phillips grew up in Florida knowing her grandmother died early with some form of dementia. Her mother also succumbed to what was diagnosed as corticobasal degeneration, and Brenda was to experience the same fate, but not without a fight. Brenda, a Mount Holyoke art major, researched every aspect of dementia and decided she would memorize poems – some of her favorite poet William Butler Yeats. After memorizing The Second Coming, she went to her studio and switched to her right brain and expressed the poem in a massive painting with no forethought. Her medium was oils. Her preferences were figures, color and bold, always. Brenda shared her skill by teaching, mentoring, and contributing to the AVA Gallery and Art Center as a board member. Brenda had 50 showings of her art throughout her career.

The works of these three successful artists, all formally trained, live on online, in galleries, museums, and in the homes of friends and family, and in the case of Brenda Phillips, on YouTube. Her friend and her husband interviewed Brenda in 2006. In the third interview, Brenda speaks of her experience with memorizing and then painting the Yeats poem. Just prior to this she had a disturbing morning where she could not remember anything.

ArtisTrees produces well-curated exhibits twice a year in their three-room art gallery on-site in South Pomfret. Along with the artworks in this latest exhibit, Trio; Exploring Dementia, two poignant films were shown: I Remember Better When I Paint and Of Mind and Music.

For the annual Bookstock weekend starting July 26, this gallery will host an exhibit called Unbound, all expressions relating to books.

Information for this article came from the exhibit itself, Marie Cole, marketing director at ArtisTree, obituaries and websites of all three artists, and the professional artists Joan Columbus and Elizabeth Moore of Grantham, as well as Michele Barr who accompanied me to this exhibit.

Elizabeth Moore was awed and commented that this was “brave.”

For an amazing array of workshops, camps and events devoted to art and its creation and enjoyment, find ArtsTree online and revel in the
offerings., 802-457-3500. It’s a tremendous resource for Quechee residents.