How An Artist Painted His Decline Into Alzheimer’s

How An Artist Painted His Decline Into Alzheimer’s

“He died in 2007, but really he was dead long before that,” explains the bright-eyed woman to a room full of sympathetic listeners. “Bill died in 2000, when the disease meant he was no longer able to draw.”

Artist William Utermohlen was the “Bill” in question here, and the person who uttered these heart-wrenching words was his wife, Patricia. She was speaking at the GV Art gallery in London at William Utermohlen: Artistic decline through Alzheimer’s an event exploring the relationship between the artist’s work and his affliction with the disease.

Herself an art historian, Patricia kept the audience on tenterhooks with a steady stream of heart-warming, insightful and very personal anecdotes. The entire room was captivated by the passion with which she spoke about her husband and his work.

A series of Utermohlen’s works on display reflect how his art changed as his Alzheimer’s progressed. I couldn’t help but feel that the use the word “decline” in the exhibition’s title was somehow unjustified, even cruel. It’s true that Utermohlen’s lack of control over his movement forced him to abandon oils for easier-to-use watercolours and pencils, but his later works are equally stunning, and provide fascinating insight into the mind of a person with Alzheimer’s.

As his disease progressed, Utermohlen became more and more interested in self-portraiture, and his own head — particularly his cranium — became an ever more prominent feature in his works. Utermohlen’s wife also drew attention to strange, black, half-open doorways which started to appear in the background of his works. “It was as if he knew he was going to a very dark place and he knew he couldn’t do anything about it,” she said. “By the end he couldn’t even recognise his own paintings… that was the saddest thing”.

All of this could have made for a rather depressing evening. But the unabashed optimism of Patricia Utermohlen and the evening’s other speakers made for an event which was as uplifting as it was informative. Only the stoniest of hearts could fail to be moved by the accounts of how art had allowed Bill to communicate his thoughts long after verbal communication was far beyond him. If the upcoming events in the series are even half as good as this one, I would certainly recommend paying them a visit.

Further insight into Utermohlen’s mind was provided by his biographer, clinical psychologist Rachel Davenhill. “With dementia, people get killed off socially long before organic death,” she said. “There’s a huge social stigma.”

Davenhill passionately believes that music and art can help people with Alzheimer’s disease remain socially alive – a view to which Patricia Utermohlen’s experience bears powerful testament. During her presentation, Patricia recalled one evening when she was sitting at home with her husband listening to a symphony by Mahler, long after he had ceased to be able to communicate with her in any way. Moved by the music, she explains how she turned to look at her husband and noticed tears pouring down his cheeks – he too was clearly moved.

That Utermohlen was able to continue with his art as his disease progressed amazed the evening’s final speaker, Stephen Gentleman, neuropathologist at Imperial College London. “It’s astounding,” he says. “Utermohlen just shouldn’t have had the mental ability to be able to carry on doing these as long as he did.”

Then came the bombshell — the words that stuck with me and played over in my head as I lay in bed later that evening: “It sounds awful,” Gentleman told me, “but in cases like these, you really hope that the patient themself loses understanding as quickly as possible, because to be in a body whose brain is failing and still have insight into what is going on must be simply horrendous.” The works on display indicate that Utermohlen did not have even this small mercy.

Despite this suffering, Utermohlen’s dedication to his art provides viewers today with a unique glimpse into the effects of a declining brain.

The event was the first in a series of four curated by GV Art and Urban Times exploring the theme of trauma from both artistic and scientific perspectives.

Image: Self-Portrait (Green) by William Utermohlen, giclee, 1997, edition of 150, 36 x 36, courtesy of the artist and GV Art

New Scientist reports, explores and interprets the results of human endeavour set in the context of society and culture, providing comprehensive coverage of science and technology news.