Paint your way out


Dear Artist,

Creativity and the onset of dementia have recently prompted a great deal of study and speculation. Dr. Luis Fornazzari of the Memory Clinic at the Division of Neurology, St. Michael’s Hospital, University of Toronto, in a paper published on Tuesday, stated, “Art should be understood as a cognitive function with its own neural networks.” His findings include the discovery that painters, musicians and writers who develop brain disorders may continue to be competent in their art for some time after losing other faculties. Our main brain, it seems, is vulnerable to attack just as a computer hard drive is to viruses, while our art brain is like an outboard memory card — somewhat protected or at least delayed in its potential corruption.


Maurice Ravel

French composer Maurice Ravel, for example, composed Bolero and other significant pieces (“Concerto for the Left Hand” and the “Concerto in G”) well after his dementia began in 1927. The main characteristic of all artists seems to be that skills, techniques and methodologies need to be well learned or self-taught. In other words, ingrained skills persist and can be the last to go.

All this is based on new understandings of Brain Reserve Capacity — neuroscientists call it “BRC.” The building of extra capacity, which largely happens in the early and middle years, is a clear catalyst to a longer, more contributive, and more fulfilling life. Many researchers such as Konrad Mauer and Bruce Miller are now suggesting that there is a “tremendous potential for preservation of brain functions induced by the visual arts.” That being said, other effective methods that build BRC are education, occupational attainment, bilingualism, physical activity, proper diet, absence of addictive drugs including alcohol and tobacco, and social networking.


Farley Mowat

There’s plenty of evidence for the persistence of art facility in the human brain. A well-known Canadian painter with advanced Alzheimer’s Disease was able to continue to paint in her habitual manner — while she was unable to perform simple drawing and writing tests. I’m sure some of our readers will be able to help out with further anecdotal material. For years I’ve confused my hot mush with my raw carrots, but I still seem to be able to paint fairly well. Maybe I’m going to paint my way out.


Iris Murdoch

Best regards,


PS: “I have to go on writing because I wouldn’t be able to go on without writing. It is the only function that works for me, and without that function, I would die.” (Farley Mowat)

Esoterica: An interesting issue in these studies deals with what is known as the “Cognitive Theory of Metaphor.” One of the principal features of many art forms, metaphor seems to work through the same brain mechanisms that are used to perform abstract reasoning. Quick and illuminating metaphoric connectivity can be noticed in some elderly people who might be otherwise challenged. British novelist Iris Murdoch, for example, was able to write her last novel, Jackson’s Dilemma, rich in wit and metaphor, after her daily journaling and other functions had deteriorated significantly.


Loom aids recovery
by Liz Zimbelman


“Protractor dreams or think! It ain’t illegal. Yet!”
mixed media
by Liz Zimbelman

A friend who was a fantastic fabric artist doing hand loom work suffered a series of devastating strokes. To aid in her recovery her husband built her a special small loom that she could work with one hand and a little assistance from him. Even though she could only communicate with grunts and false starts, she could make small weavings for her friends and family. I treasure the one she made for me.





Change of style after dementia
by Andrew Baker, South Downs, UK


“Hartfield Trees”
watercolour painting
by Willem de Kooning

From an Art Historical perspective there is an interesting example in American figurative. His later works, at a time when he was diagnosed with dementia, showed a great difference in style from his former work. Where previously his forms and mark-making were diffuse and expressive, the works of his latter period show a tendency to clearly outlined shapes. It appears as if they were done by a totally different artist. Art critics of the time were troubled by the challenge to determine whether this was an outcome of his illness or of his artistic development.


Dancing away dementia
by Karen Gurnee, Salem, OR, USA

They have done studies and have found that of all the activities that help prevent mental deterioration and dementia, partner dancing is the very top rated activity for keeping our minds clear and active. Partner/ballroom/swing dancing beats out crossword puzzles, chess, etc. This is because it engages us on so many different levels:

— Mental: it takes mental agility and concentration to both lead and follow.

— Physical health: we need approximately 10,000 steps a day to be healthy. You can accomplish this dancing within 2-4 hours, depending on the dance.

— Physical touch: human contact!

— Social interaction

— Music rhythm

— Fun, joy and laughter!


Musical memory kept longest
by Lesly Finn, Port Chalmers, Dunedin, New Zealand


“Chasing waves”
pastel painting
by Lesly Finn

My mother became ill with dementia in her mid-seventies. From an early age she had been interested in drawing and painting, and was from a family of 5 sisters who had enjoyed the ‘hey-day’ of the London musical and later West-End shows both pre and post WWII. As her illness progressed she gradually lost most of her faculties. Recognition of me and my children was lost long before the following abilities were lost (I have listed these in the order of their loss), the ability to draw and the ability to feed herself. Finally, she lost the ability to sing ‘old songs.’ Even when she did not understand the spoken word she could on occasion join in and sing the songs that she had heard in her youth.

What a strange and wonderful, and yet even terrible thing the brain is.


Persistent painting
by Valerie Kent, Richmond Hill, ON, Canada


watercolour painting
by Valerie Kent

I paint with individuals, many with dementia, at four facilities in the Toronto area. Many are well into their nineties. Their ability to paint is amazing and they love to paint. Some have never painted before and some painted for most of their lives. Only one person so far has expressed frustration because he was a master painter in China and now his vision of what he did before does not match what he is able to do now. But, he keeps on trying. Sometimes they don’t remember that they have done the painting when it is finished. They look at their own signatures and ask me if they have painted the piece and then are surprised and delighted.


Artistic metaphors
by Ted Duncan, ON, Canada


“Local treats”
mixed media
by Ted Duncan

I believe, though I have no proof, that most learning is won through metaphors. Especially when learning about something of which you have no experience. Of course, the more experiences you have, the more metaphors available to you. If you are trying to explain something difficult, there is nothing like a metaphor related to a more common experience(s).

(RG note) Thanks, Ted. Painting itself is a metaphor. There is the transposing of one form or reality to another. The very act is metaphoric.


Do not go gently
by Julia Burger

I present arts programs to our elders and also design and present intergenerational programs. Recently my programs were chosen to be a part of a film/documentary Do Not Go Gently which just premiered in Washington, D. C. two weeks ago and is being shown on PBS around the country. Obviously it is on creativity and aging. I will be presenting a paper and trainings in Green Bay, Wisconsin to the Alzheimer’s Association and caregivers of facilities in Green Bay the second week in June.


Cognitive interaction affects creative process
by Stanley Horner, Victoria, BC, Canada


It seems that the interaction of the left and right brain and their dependence upon the older brains beneath them constitutes the basis that we have to work with in grappling with the making and reading of images. It seems that the more grounded space-based right brain with its potential for grasping pattern in still images needs to speak to the time-based left brain if we are to awaken the narrative side of the creative process as an event; after all, it takes time to make or read art. It’s interesting that you suggest that the left brain, the last one to evolve, is the first one to go. There’s much more in my new book: Drawing on all 4 Brains and all 8 Intelligences: Drawing on the Mind.


Culinary creation maintains humanity
by Nonny Kudelka, NC, USA

To quote from your letter: “ingrained skills persist and can be the last to go.” My mother could put on a meal that was a feast to the palate and to the eye; a creative lady, she carried it over to the feeding of her family as well as other creative pursuits. At 92, she had dementia to a point where I could tell her favorite joke every 20 minutes, and she’d laugh and enjoy it again and again with genuine relish. But her cooking skills had disappeared since she hadn’t used them in years… until one day I set the making of galumpke (stuffed rolled cabbage) on the counter and asked, as a child would: what do I do next? Getting exasperated with me, she finally took over and made them, beautifully, artistically. I was smart enough to take pictures, knowing the siblings would not believe me. She was doing BY ROTE that which was ingrained over the years, and it had to be presented at the same high level she’d set many years before. The satisfaction she gained from that afternoon stayed with her a couple of days; the memory of it did not. Although, the glow of having created something worthy of high praise from loved ones…. that lasted. It had placed her back ‘in the land of the living’ by giving of herself and creating a thing of beauty once again.


Energy, drive and satisfaction
by Taylor Ikin, Tampa Bay, FL, USA


“Magnolia III”
original painting
by Taylor Ikin

In April I was asked by the Executive Director of the Tampa Bay Business Committee for the ARTS to be on the panel of the Arts & Aging MetLife Forum. These are being held all around the US. The panel included an editor of a regional paper, several very knowledgeable program chairs from the University of South Florida and two members from out of town invited to bring their extensive understanding of the aging process to the table. This forum was extremely well attended and produced extensive discussions which also included the audience.

And then there was the artist. I brought to the table the “it” about which they all were very informed but had no working knowledge. I could share the experience and the consequences and the drive necessary to keep the discipline going. And being a positive person, I could share the joy in making art and the wonderful friends that come from such a life. But most importantly, I was able to be an example of the energy, drive and satisfaction resulting from the creative process. My theory is no matter what you have left behind in your memory box, if you are able to keep creating, no matter how limited your life may become, you will find a little sunshine which might possibly last until the last ray is gone. It is not the length of time but the quality of our space that separates the aging artist from the rest of the pack.


Multi-faceted reality
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA

Your term “clear reality” is somewhat confusing. Do you mean that reality is not real unless it deals with gloomy and not pretty subjects and subject matter? There is both beauty and ugliness in life and it is in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes I think that your ability to comprehend art ends at figurative and more or less “realistic” approaches. Clearly you are a figurative painter and as such probably prefer figurative painting over other forms of painting. We all tend to be biased in this fashion. We all tend to prefer our own preferences.

However, this does not make other forms of painting any less real or less of a reality. The way that you see the world is not the way that I see the world. When you talk about “clear reality,” to me you sound like you think there is just one reality. I think there is no one reality. Just as beauty and ugliness also is reality in the eye of the beholder. Feelings are no less real than what you witness with your eyes. To the person experiencing the feelings, they can be more overwhelming than any outer reality ever could be. Colors and forms alone evoke emotions. We do not have to be force-fed through a clearly recognizable object or body to be moved. There are many dimensions to these so called “realities.”

(RG note) Thanks, Helena. Those guys were able to see beyond the merely pretty, and get at a kind of truth that many find difficult to find. That’s what is meant by “clear reality.”


Artistic release
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“Above Third Beach”
original painting
by John Ferrie

This letter speaks to me this week more than usual. I have just had a horrific week, I have a very sick friend in the hospital, I am letting go of a toxic friendship and I lost the book that I made for my last show when I was transferring files to a new external hard drive. Everything seemed to culminate and I was in the middle of a number of issues, none of which I cared to deal with and seemed to have even less resources. As a creative thinker, when this happens I don’t look at the big picture, I just dwell on things and get myself down.

The thought of working on projects and paintings that I had on hand was just not something I could comprehend. My studio seemed to be this grey static zone that was on hold. All the while, I was worried and pondering and wondering… A week later, some things have just been let go, my friend is being released from the hospital as his problem seemed to have passed. My computer problem is now so fixable and I have returned to my painting. The feeling of my brush across my canvas loaded with pigment is something that soothes my nerves. Within minutes of painting I have a surge of self-esteem as I refresh my brain and know that being a painter is what defines me. While I am not dealing with dementia, nor do I begin to understand the brain function behind my creativity. But like a light switch turning on, there is light where there was darkness and my life is moving forward… once again.


Chronicle of descent into Alzheimer’s
by Luz Perez, Riverside, CA, USA


“Laguna Beach Palm”
giclee print
by Luz Perez

I think I fear losing my sight more than I fear losing my mind. This is just a personal opinion, however. At least if I lose my mind I won’t miss what I have come to believe is that art keeps me alive.

I read a chilling article on the Internet about William Utermohlen and his self-portraits showing his descent into dementia, by Denise Grady, dated October 24, 2006. I can no longer pull it up on the Internet but perhaps those who are interested in seeing an exceptional body of work can find it elsewhere.

RG note) Thanks, Luz. Go here: William Utermohlen’s Self-Portraits click on (story) and read Denise Grady’s article.


Music restores brain function
by Cathy DeWitt, Gainesville, FL


Cathy DeWitt preforming at the Unity Music workshop

As the Musician in Residence for Shands Arts in Medicine program at the University of Florida in Gainesville, I’ve seen music bring dramatic results to patients who have Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other memory disorders. Patients who have not spoken a coherent sentence in weeks (according to the staff) may be able to sing along with entire songs. Patients who sit slumped in their wheelchairs become animated and start moving. And sometimes, singing these songs actually triggers something in the mind that makes it suddenly possible for the patient to remember and speak of a past experience. Oliver Sacks, noted author and expert neurologist, explains: “… a stroke or dementia can cause aphasia, the inability to use or comprehend words. But the ability to sing words is rarely affected, even if an aphasic cannot speak them. Being reminded in this way of words and grammatical constructions they have forgotten…may help them start to regain old neural pathways for accessing language… Music then becomes a crucial first step in a sequence followed by spontaneous improvement and speech therapy.” As a musician, it’s interesting that visual arts can have the same kind of impact. As evidenced in a unique partnership between the Museum of Modern Art in New York and Artists for Alzheimer’s, participants with Alzheimer’s and dementia who were brought to the museum responded verbally and appropriately to pieces of art, even if they had been non-verbal for weeks at a time!


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Paint your way out



From: Valerie Norberry — May 21, 2007

I teach calligraphy in Senior Centers in Three Rivers, Michigan (South of Kalamazoo), and Portage, MI (Kalamazoo). I had one lady who did calligraphy very well just tracing the alphabet with tracing paper and a brush. She remarked that her arm had gone through a plate glass window, and her friend sitting next to her added “she had help,” I believe insinuating domestic violence, although I did not pry. This lady with the injured arm remarked to me that the doctors said that they wanted to cut off her arm and that she would not be able to use her arm again if they reattached the cut tendon and repaired it. She proved them wrong. Her calligraphy was beautiful. What a triumph over evil and neglect.

From: Jean DeSavage — May 22, 2007

Ami Simms, a quilt artist has started a program called the Alzheimer’s Initiative. Her mother, who was a fabric designer and quilter, now has Alzheimer’s, and can no longer recognize family. But Ami can put cards in front of her with paints, and she produces lovely cards that are then sold to help finance the Initiative.

One of the other things that she has done has started a traveling quilt exhibition of quilts about Alzheimer’s, and a benefit sale of small quilts and artwork called Priority Quilts, with the proceeds going to promote educational work on Alzheimer’s disease.

You can see more about her wonderful work at

From: Denie Whalen — May 22, 2007

We have just completed a year-long program of intermodal expressive arts for the residents of Marjorie Doyle Rockwell Center, a facility for persons with early to mid-stage dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Our thinking in preparing our grant proposal was informed by intermodal expressive arts principles and practice as articulated by Paolo Knill, Stephen and Ellen Levine and the client-centered dementia care theories of Thomas Kitwood. We used visual art and writing, movement and storytelling to maintain and nurture a sense of self within a community living environment. We are encouraged by the reports of spared art making abilities of persons with dementia and that is borne out by our experience. Additionally we have discovered another aspect of how art making validates lives lived in the moment. Here is an excerpt from our final report.

So much of the art making that is done with persons with memory loss emphasizes the end product, a “proof” in a way, that even with rampaging memory loss, a person can still produce something. We don’t mean to minimize the value of creating a work, especially when it can be done in a playful and exploratory way. We love the monoprints, the collages, the leaf prints, the watercolors and poems as much as the participants do and we will continue to investigate some of the dementia-friendly art activities. At the same time, we want to make more room for the play-oriented approach where what happens in the moment is enough, where arranging and re-arranging a harmonizing assortment of brilliantly colored and patterned papers can not only engender satisfying and enabling responses and interactions from the participants and also reveal inner resources that give meaning to a life lived from moment to moment. Saying this doesn’t mean we stop planning, preparing, experimenting or that anything goes, far from it. A session for a group of persons with dementia requires a well-formed frame around a playfully stretched canvas. We continue breathing in, inspiring our work with this population and making more and more room for breathing out, letting go.

Submitted by Susan Moran, MA/Psychology, Director of the Marjorie Doyle Rockwell Center (MDRC) in Cohoes, NY and Denie Whalen, OTR, MA, CAGS, Director of New York Expressive Arts in Albany, NY.

From: V.E. Levi — May 22, 2007

The topic of the brain is very interesting. A painter, I recently have had the incredible opportunity to teach units on the human body and in physics (energy) to middle school students at a music school for four months. During this period I also took an economics grad course at night (because I’ve been teaching executives how to relate painting to business). The intellectual experience blew my mind, or more correctly, established a gazillion new neurological synapses and networks of thought processes. Every waking moment I was prepping to teach lessons on energy forms, simple machines, functions of the human body, and writing up rookie economic analyses. Near the end, I managed to combine all of it into lessons and labs that went beyond traditional activities and truly engaged the students. As a painter and painting instructor, I’ve trained, and train others, to relate parts to the whole. Thus, making connections between my study of the visual physical world through painting, economics, neuroscience, and energy transformation processes on atomic and molecular levels while listening and watching my young classical music students diligently practice and train, began melding into something yet unformed! Am still digesting it all. It is safe to say to other artists here, that the act of painting and drawing elevate thinking to higher levels of abstract thinking. Studying and painting a still life–examining how each plane reflects light and color differently provides an endless fascination–a skill I hope persists well into old age regardless of dementia.

From: Susan Connelly — May 22, 2007

Thank you, Robert, for another insightful chapter (on aging and art). What a gift art is in our lives and it’s amazing that it survives beyond recognizing family and reality. You also always amaze me with your incredible energy and thought provoking subjects. Keep it up. I look forward to reading each installment.

From: O’Neita Kuykendall — May 22, 2007

It strikes me that the beauty written about here is in the hearts of those who are giving of themselves… hope I run across one of them when I need a beautiful person. Oh, I am only eighty and have just walked my miles on the Southern California beach… lucky me. Now I go to create something… I am a calligrapher. I joke that in the “old folks home” I am planning to take my pens etc. and teach the joy of ink and pen.

From: Janet Stevenson — May 22, 2007

As a young nurse working in a psychiatric facility, I worked with patients who had dementias of all sorts. They loved to sing, and even the quietest one would sing out, quite often remembering the words easily and yet unable to recall faces of their loved ones. The halls had pictures on them and as they hearded back and forth down this hall they would look at the pictures time and again. They might even make the same remarks; the point I’m making is that they “noticed” at that moment in time. As they became trustful of each other they would greet each other as long lost friends, unable to recall a name but full of warmth and their own brand of sincerity. The areas of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease can vary and the cells damaged by the disease process may involve areas of thought, emotion or activity, or all of the previously mentioned. This may help inform us as to why one person may experience an abrupt change in personality while another may not be able to communicate but able to understand the spoken word. It is a difficult disease for all. They enjoy foods that have more pronounced taste and they like colour. One might sit down and play a piece by Chopin, while another could tend that small garden out back, picking only the weeds. The symptoms are as different as the colours of the trees; however, they are able to appreciate on simpler levels, less cluttered by day to day stuff. They love the smell of flowers, the touch of someone’s hand and will note the texture, the colour and the gentle way in which they are held. It can be an illness of great terror and anxiety as well. To care for an Alzheimer’s patient requires skill, compassion, patience and a willingness to let go. So, if you have a friend who has the beginnings of this disease, take them out, go to the museum, to the art shows and to a place where the music they appreciate can be heard. Your artistic gift to them is one of time and awareness. Their perceptions will enhance yours. They may invoke in you an artistic venue you did not know was there. They do take time to smell the roses… join them! Jan

From: Liz Reday — May 22, 2007

The kindness and patience of some of your readers is awesome! Dementia and Alzheimers are tough things to deal with, they’re even difficult to think about. As an artist, I can only be grateful that I can paint and that I’ll be able to keep on painting. Life is short, and this subject makes me thankful for simple pleasures. It’s time to take my 86 year old mother back to the art museums that she took me to when I was a child.

From: Mary Jean Mailloux — May 29, 2007

For about the past 6 letters I’ve been getting the clickbacks with the text overlapping the artwork and the text doesn’t wrap at 10 words or so but just continues forever. Is anyone else having this problem? I have an old Mac but up until now things have been going well.

From: Morley Johnson — Jun 20, 2007

Crop your picture with your hand on your chin! Way too windy.






Epic One and Two [diptych]

acrylic painting
by Alice Helwig, Calgary, AB, Canada


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Faith Puleston of Herdecke, Germany who wrote, “Retaining the creative spirit has a lot to do with love: the love of what we do. Artists of any genre are particularly privileged because the love of an artist for his or her brain children is second only to the love of a mother for her child. And that love goes beyond life and death.”

And also Odette Nicholson of Saskatoon, SK, Canada who wrote, “A note to your readers who are interested in sideways approach: Neurology in everyday life — The Fourth Treasure by Todd Shimoda. It is a fictional account by a doctor of Neuroscience, about cerebrovascular disease; a Japanese American Calligraphy Artist who suffers a stroke but continues to ‘draw’.”

And also Steve Hovland of CA, USA who wrote, “Brain plasticity also plays a role. ‘Use it or lose it’ is a folk saying that is born out by hard science. Retirement is suicide.”

And also Brenda Elliott of Santa Rosa, CA, USA who wrote, “The message in Psychiatrist John Ratey, MD’s User’s Guide to the Brain: ‘Passion heals.’ ”

And also Sinead who wrote, “As you write, again you have confirmed my notions on collective consciousness and that we all swim in a water that is connected, shared, often difficult but also beautiful.”




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