“Uh Oh”, is the name I’ve given to this drawing collage, pictured here. In the English urban vernacular, it’s a term used to express alarm, dismay, or realization of a difficulty.
I am still creating images, and hope to increase my output. Though my current art work will never be seen in a major museum like that of de Kooning, whose late works from the period in which he was declining with Alzheimer’s were highly valued, (although some of my more sophisticated art works from the past, are in public collections, including the Chicago Art Institute, and The Canada Council and a number of private collections), my simple drawings and artworks are mine and offer a visual illustration of my current state, my sense of humor and a glimmer of who I was. A woman who was an artist, writer and filmmaker.
I have fallen off the cliff, and am progressing I know, but I am not yet so far gone that I am not aware of what is going on. I’m painfully aware of precisely what is happening to me at this point. I am using my drawings and writing as a graph to illustrate what I am still able to do, and to show me how far I have descended from my previous baseline.
“Uh oh”, I stop at the mid point between holding onto to myself, and slipping into the abyss.
When did my decline begin and can it be charted in my previous work? I wonder.
I offer this interesting analysis of the several major figures in modern art who developed Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, as compared to masters who did not.
In a study published in Neuropsychology, a psychologist at the University of Liverpool argued that early signs of neurodegenerative disease can be unmasked in the works of master artists through mathematical analysis of the artists’ brushstrokes. Alex Forsythe, the lead author, discovered that mathematical patterns—called fractals— that underlie a piece of art changed in the work of major artists who eventually developed Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.
Fractals, often referred to as nature’s fingerprints, are never-ending patterns that repeat in similar or identical ways at different scales. Branching fractals, for example, are visible in trees, and in aerial views of rivers and mountain ranges. Spiraling fractals are seen in ferns, seashells, and the textured spikes of Romanesco broccoli, while other fractal types appear in individual snowflakes.
To uncover fractal patterns in a painting, scientists subject images to specialized computer programs that place a virtual grid over the work, then measure the brushstroke patterns repeating within the grid’s smaller squares. Using this method, a British physicist famously detected that Jackson Pollock’s seemingly chaotic paintings actually contain fractals that are pleasing to the eye, even if the viewer is not conscious of why. Although its accuracy is debated, the fractal analysis method has been used to authenticate art works of unknown provenance.
For the study, Forsythe, working with colleagues at the UK’s National Health Service and Maynooth University, analyzed more than 2,000 paintings collected from museums and galleries. All were produced by one of only seven legendary painters: Willem de Kooning or James Brooks, who were both eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; Salvador Dalí or Norval Morrisseau, who both developed Parkinson’s disease; and Marc Chagall, Claude Monet, or Pablo Picasso, three masters who did not suffer from any neurodegenerative diseases. The last three artists served as the control group.
Fractal testing revealed that the artists whose gray matter was eventually compromised began to work outside of their normal range of fractal dimension—defined as a measure of how completely a pattern fills a space—long before their diagnoses. Typically artists will work within the same fractal dimension, whether low or high—for their entire life. This doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t work in different styles, just that their fractal range remains the same, much as a writer will create works in fiction, mystery or other genres in the same voice.
All of the control group artists—Chagall, Monet, and Picasso—were found to have stayed within a relatively steady fractal dimension range throughout their lives. De Kooning and Brooks began to show a wide variance in range in their 40s, while Dali and Morriseau launched their careers working in a low fractal dimension, which increased in during mid-life, before dropping once again.
For me now the act of drawing is therapeutic, but that too comes with the recognition of how my fine motor skills are altered. I must focus intently to sharpen the prisma-color pencils, and cut and paste the elements of a collage.
I wonder if de Kooning who had Alzheimer’s, experienced a consciousness of his declining ability to manipulate material and utilize his tools, brushes, paints, pencils and other materials.
Here is a painting by artist Mary Wyant, an artist who has Alzheimer’s and stopped painting. This is a clip of her daughter describing one of her mother’s last paintings-
Finally, I leave you with the works of a U.K.-based artist William Utermohlen, who in 1995 was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. For the subsequent 5 years he drew self portraits, documenting the his journey and ability or inability to draw his own face.