Alzheimer’s was identified as a disease in 1906. Scientists, therefore, have had more than a century to find a cure. None exists. I learned this from an article in Time magazine by Alice Park. The article was, surprisingly, rather hopeful despite the fact that in the past 15 years more than 200 drugs have been tested and 50,000,000 people worldwide are living with dementia, mostly caused by Alzheimer’s.
Artist William Utermohlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1995 and died in 2007. Two other artists, Norman Rockwell and Wilem de Kooning, reportedly received the same diagnosis. But Utermohlen did something different. He decided to chronicle his descent into forgetfulness through his art. According to a brief book about him called “Portraits from the Mind, “…no one has been able to capture the experience of dementia in such an articulate and powerful manner.” This is accurate.
Ruth & I were privileged to see an exhibit of William Utermohlen’s work at LUMA, the eleven-year-old Loyola University Museum of Art at 820 North Michigan Avenue across the street from Chicago’s famous Water Tower. It’s there only until July 23, 2016, and I have not been successful at finding out if will be on exhibit elsewhere after it closes. I hope it travels. Subtitled “A Persistence of Memory” this exhibit, which is also being promoted as “More than a Survivor: More than a Story”, continues to haunt me.
Fine temporary exhibits seem to be LUMA’s strength. Another show contained photographs of neighborhoods soon to be razed due to eminent domain, so Ruth & I moved from a disrupted life to doomed buildings. They were also rather haunting.
LUMA’s permanent collection is, for now, on the floor above its 3 thoughtful temporary shows. On the Water Tower Loyola campus that specializes in law and business, the permanent stuff will be of genuine interest only to those who have a passion for the art that decorated Jesuit churches over the centuries. LUMA’s brain-stirring promise is to explore, promote, and understand art that has expression and “that illuminates the enduring spiritual question of all cultures and societies”. This is quite noble, but I found myself really looking at only a curious key collection and a stained-glass piece showing St. Margaret emerging from the belly of a dragon.
William Utermohlen continued to paint as Alzheimer’s disease progressed, and he produced over 100 works that clearly show the impact of this horrible disease on an artist’s creativity and output as he became increasingly isolated and unable to remember. Born in Philadelphia, Utermohlen was living in London at the time of his diagnosis. An article about him appeared in the highly respected British medical journal, The Lancet. One day I expect to look up the definition of bravery and find that Utermohlen is a new synonym for it.