Lisa Buck, coordinator of the Memories in the Making art therapy program for the Alzheimer’s Association’s North Central Texas Chapter, remembers a particularly striking watercolor work she saw created in the program. The artist, an elderly Fort Worth man in the middle stages of dementia, had once been an executive at Justin Boots with no background in fine art. Staying focused on anything is a problem for most Alzheimer’s patients, but Buck remembers him as being totally absorbed in the abstract composition he was painting. “He chose all his own colors,” she noted.
The final image is a series of warm, confident, almost three-dimensional tubular strokes of blue, purple, red, and green, a composition that wouldn’t look out of place on a museum wall. “I saw some Motherwell in that painting,” Buck said, “and maybe a little bit of Brice Marden’s colors.”
The goal of Memories in the Making, a therapeutic art curriculum created 25 years ago by two California artists, is not to unearth previously hidden visual art savants. These bare-bones painting classes for all ability levels were designed to stimulate the memory, concentration, and hand-eye coordination of patients in various stages of the brain-killing condition known as Alzheimer’s. The North Central Texas Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association had been itching to bring Memories in the Making to its local clients and communities for years. Five years ago they finally hired Buck, whose background was in art history and museum administration, to import the classes to North Texas. Buck’s previous job was as curator for the Contemporary Arts Center in downtown Cincinnati.
“I knew nothing about Alzheimer’s,” said Buck, who went out to California and studied with the program’s creators before she set up shop here. “Honestly, I was thinking about the job as an administrator: ‘I can handle this.’ I didn’t expect to fall in love with so much of the art.”
Curated by Buck and hanging for only 10 days at Gallery 76102, Beyond Memory: Paintings by People with Dementia is a show of watercolors on paper featuring 40 North Texas artists. They range in age from the 70s to the 90s, and all but one of them is in a long-term care facility. For many patients with advanced cognitive deterioration, just making a few marks on the paper represents a victory of expression when other faculties –– speech, sight, hearing, hand movements –– are disappearing.. But since the works in Beyond Memory will be auctioned off to benefit the Alzheimer’s Association, Buck selected the best pieces she could find, sifting through North Texas’ two dozen “communities,” a.k.a. care facilities with participating patients. Some of the paintings are representational in style, but most are not.
Buck’s chief criterion? “A good painting is a painting that’s completed,” she said. “The artist has stuck with it long enough to cover the page, and the more paint the better.”
Buck also tried to exhibit at least one piece from each community. She also credits them or their facilitators, people trained to conduct Memories in the Making classes. The artists themselves are kept anonymous to protect their privacy.
Though she never expected her original education and experience with modern and contemporary art would lead her to work with Alzheimer’s patients, Buck said that some comparisons between the more developed works by dementia patients and established professional artists are warranted.
“When I started painting [with dementia patients], I saw that most of them weren’t trained in abstract art and probably didn’t think [that style] even was art,” she said with a chuckle. “We always bring a photo to class to help inspire them, maybe a plum or a tree or whatever. Then these abstract circles and parallel lines start appearing in their pictures. Somehow, the immediacy between what’s going on in their brains and what’s coming through their hands” produced that style reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism.
The Memories in the Making art therapy program has been a big success for AA’s North Texas patient communities, keeping artists active and creative. Buck is keenly aware that many of the world’s most celebrated painters have spent their careers returning to the simple, elemental colors and shapes that these Alzheimer’s patients are naturally producing as a consequence of their condition.
“For many people with dementia, making art is spontaneous and innocent,” she said. “It’s just pure creativity coming out. That state may have been what the Abstract Expressionists were aiming for all along.”
Thru Jan 25 at Gallery 76102, 1401 Jones St, FW. Free. 817-272-0365. Opening reception is 5pm Thu.