"It was as if he knew he was going to a very dark place and he knew he couldn't do anything about it,"
February 6, 2012 8:50 AM   Subscribe

Artistic decline through Alzheimer's - William Utermohlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1995 yet he continued drawing. His last self portraits painted between 1995 and 2001 tell a unique tale of an implacable disease encroaching on to his mind and senses.
"He died in 2007, but really he was dead long before that, Bill died in 2000, when the disease meant he was no longer able to draw."
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".
posted by quin (39 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
The progression is daunting and cruel. And in the end, sadly, it really looks like there's nothing left.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 9:00 AM on February 6, 2012

Wow, that's... bleak.
posted by unSane at 9:04 AM on February 6, 2012

That is the saddest sequence of portraits I have ever seen.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:04 AM on February 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

his later works are equally stunning, and provide fascinating insight into the mind of a person with Alzheimer's.

I agree entirely. I think viewing the series of images as one of "decline" is misplaced. I actually like the last image the most.
posted by R. Mutt at 9:06 AM on February 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

Even though it's heartbreaking to see his skill decline, I still have to admire whatever was in his spirit that led him to continue to paint. I'm one of those people who are horrified at the idea of something slowly eating away my ability to think, and I'd like to believe that there's something left of a person even after most of the rest of their mind is gone.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:09 AM on February 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't even have much to say, except that I find this post incredibly inspirational. I love art and elderly people and if I have my way, I'll be spending the rest of my life studying dementia and geriatric neuropsychology, so this post speaks to me in a very special way. Thank you for finding this. I am so jealous of the people who got to attend that event.
posted by Mrs.Spiffy at 9:16 AM on February 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'm eating a shotgun the day I am diagnosed with Alzheimer's, if, God forbid, that day comes. Any one desiring some "triumph of the human spirit" inspiration from the spectacle of me enduring a prolonged, slow, horrid decline is going to be SOL.
posted by thelonius at 9:17 AM on February 6, 2012 [13 favorites]

"Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."
posted by The White Hat at 9:23 AM on February 6, 2012

I actually like the last image the most.

Me too. Certainly has the most going on, but what, exactly?

posted by Capt. Renault at 9:26 AM on February 6, 2012

Thanks for the post--no words that have not been said--BTW, Thanks for the link to the Urban times. Looks to be an outstanding on line magazine.
posted by rmhsinc at 9:30 AM on February 6, 2012

To the end, he emphasized his large ears. Huh.
posted by Melismata at 9:34 AM on February 6, 2012

This is terrifying to me. My mother died from Alzheimer's, as did her brother, and one of my dad's sisters is currently in the process.
posted by Legomancer at 9:41 AM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's a pretty fascinating story about a study that claimed Agatha Christie had Alzheimer's, as evidenced by her late-era books.
posted by gern at 9:50 AM on February 6, 2012

I'm eating a shotgun the day I am diagnosed with Alzheimer's, if, God forbid, that day comes. Any one desiring some "triumph of the human spirit" inspiration from the spectacle of me enduring a prolonged, slow, horrid decline is going to be SOL.

I think I'd wait until there was a decent progression of the disease and end up using something decidedly less messy, but apart from that I'm fully with this. I am myself, I do not want to live as someone else. Especially someone else with fewer working mental faculties.
posted by Slackermagee at 10:22 AM on February 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

That series of images exemplifies my greatest fear. I find them both tragic and powerful.
posted by blurker at 10:32 AM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

"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.
Sounds like my grandmother. It was awful to watch.
posted by gaspode at 10:43 AM on February 6, 2012

My grandmother was also a painter, and although she didn't do self-portraits very often, her work underwent a similar change as her Alzheimer's worsened. According to my mother, the last things my grandmother forgot were the paintings; long after she had lost the ability to converse lucidly about anything else, she could offer remarkably clear assessments of her work, what she did and didn't like about it, how it was done, and so forth.
posted by thomas j wise at 10:50 AM on February 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

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. . . .

Neuropathologist Stephen Gentleman: "Utermohlen just shouldn't have had the mental ability to be able to carry on doing these as long as he did."

My mother, a singer and dancer, passed away last year at 87 following a long decline with Alzheimers.

The last Christmas I spent with her she wasn't sure who we were or what part of her life she was living in. (She was unstuck in time, like Billy Pilgrim.) She couldn't sit up in her chair without help, had next to no short-term memory, and was beginning to lose the ability to form coherent sentences.

So it's Christmastime and she's a traditionalist who loves the holiday. I thought she might appreciate some Christmas carols (emphatically NOT my thing), and to that end, practiced about a dozen of the classics, and brought a guitar and basic lyric sheets to visit. There's maybe six of us there, all family, and I'm just hoping she can follow along.

Even if she could have read the lead sheets, my mother did not need them. She sang every single song from the top, in tune, with correct timing and breath. And: recalled in real-time, every word to every verse of every song. (Do you know the third verse to Silent Night? Away in a Manger? Angels We Have Heard on High? Me neither.)

Then she started calling the tunes, quickly exhausting my repertoire. I had to fake my way comping on guitar through Sleigh Ride (including the bridge) and a few others that I hadn't practiced. (No weird keys either. She'd start something a capella and it'd turn out to be pretty close to C, F, etc. ) So for that hour or two, she was once again the leader of the band.

Our brains are mutli-dimensional, and dementia is mutli-dimensional, too. As long as there's a chance that there's some part of somebody home, it's worth giving that someone a chance to express themselves. I'm glad Utermohlen continued his work as long as posslble, for our greater understanding of the disease, but also for himself. You might think he would be depressed at the 'decline' in his results, but as an artist, he'd be inured to failure. It's far more important to have done something today than that today's work create some kind of artifact of lifelong progress in objective quality.

My mother and I were worlds apart musically, but when my turn comes, I sure hope someone will stop by once in a while with a couple holo-guitars or even a boom-crystal and work through some Beatles and Blues with me, even if it looks like my lights are on but nobody's home. Deep down somewhere, I'll still be swingin'.
posted by Herodios at 10:57 AM on February 6, 2012 [23 favorites]

I hate this disease in particular. I lost my beloved grandfather long before he passed away.
posted by infini at 10:59 AM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can think of no worse fate than being "in there, deep down somewhere".
posted by Legomancer at 11:09 AM on February 6, 2012 [4 favorites]

I can think of no worse fate than being "in there, deep down somewhere".

Maybe. But you left out an important part: "I'll still be swingin'."

As long as I have the whererwithall to tap a foot -- or twitch an eye or throb a vein-- to the beat, I'll want people to bring me music. And even if nobody does, I'll still be listening to the jukebox in my head forever.

It's not Alzheimers, but consider the case of Jason Becker.
posted by Herodios at 11:26 AM on February 6, 2012

At the end of my grandpa's fight with Alzheimer's, it wasn't just me who was "hey, young man," - my father, and my other grandfather, who he'd known as a kid were called the same thing. On his birthday, we dutifully took him apple pie a la mode at the convalescent home (he also had a wonderful bout of pneumonia). As I was leaving, he shook my hand with a firmness I'd missed for at least five years, looked me right in the eye, and told me, "Thanks a lot for coming, Chris. I appreciate it." Thirty-six hours later, he was dead.

I carry his last little spell of lucidity with me like Samwise carried salt from the Shire.
posted by notsnot at 11:48 AM on February 6, 2012 [17 favorites]

Herodios, my grandmother played piano in silent movie houses, and continued to play long after she'd forgotten me, her children, and everything else. I swear to you, it's one of the reasons I've learned to play guitar in my middle age.

And I'll add, just to lighten things up a tiny bit, that my grandmother's funeral was the best I've ever been to. We'd all gradually lost touch with her over the years as she faded away, and the funeral was a time to remind each other (and ourselves, of course) of what a vibrant, wonderful person she had been. On the casket throught the funeral was her favorite picture, of her "getting leied in Hawaii," as she always put it. The minister just thought it was a vacation snapshot, but we were all giggling thorughout the service.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:52 AM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

The spread of paintings was enough to bring a tear to my eye. Wow, terrifying.
posted by Theta States at 12:45 PM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

A little context for R. Mutt's link to Willem de Kooning late paintings: He probably (but not certainly) had alzheimer's.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:13 PM on February 6, 2012

This reminds me, but is in some ways the very opposite, of Louis Wain's post-psychotic pictures of cats.
posted by Flunkie at 1:45 PM on February 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

They remind me of Wain as well, and remind me also that the ones of Wain's that we most often see (the set that starts with a cat painted in a normal realistic style--though looking somewhat apprehensive--and ends with a full-on geometrical demon) had actually been cherry-picked to show an apparently steady progression into flaming psychosis. That's not how it was with Wain, he continued to have good days as well as wigged-out ones and kept on painting realistic cat portraits along with the spectacular stylized ones he is remembered for. I wonder how true that might have been of Utermohlen.

Odd or even, I'm with those who find the later pictures just as much worth looking at as the earlier ones, maybe more so, and by no means just as examples of pathology. The final one shown, from 2000, is the one that gives me that "I wish I had drawn that" feeling. Spooky!
posted by jfuller at 2:43 PM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

If art is meant to somehow reflect or communicate our internal thoughts, to say something about ourselves, or our world, or our place in it; if art is meant to show us what we have not yet been able to see on our own - then that last piece of his (even without the context of the others)...man, that seems to me like the work of a real artist at the height of his power.
posted by nickjadlowe at 2:50 PM on February 6, 2012

I cannot begin to begin to define the punctuation nightmare that is my above comment. Ugh. Sorry about that.
posted by nickjadlowe at 2:53 PM on February 6, 2012

As an artist and a son, nephew, and grandson of likely Alzheimer's sufferers...well, wow. There's a possible future for me.

I do have several questions, some of which have been articulated in previous comments. One, how much cherry picking is involved in selecting the art we saw? Two, how much of a style change was involved in his career without the influence of the disease? From 1967 to 1996 is a long time, I really doubt the difference in those two pictures is attributable to Alzheimer's. Plus, I wonder how much of the difference in the later pictures is because of general aging issues.

Still, pretty fascinating. And really scary to me.
posted by Mcable at 3:23 PM on February 6, 2012

What was most frustrating about my paternal grandfather's long descent into Alzheimer's-driven dementia was his aphasia. Sometimes he'd start a sentence and have it shift abruptly into gibberish - other times he wouldn't be able to form a sentence that had actual words in it at all.

And you could see the frustration on his face, too, in the early years of his disease. He knew was he was trying to say, could see that his family wanted very badly to understand him, but his damaged brain was getting between us.

As the years went by, his frustration seemed to evaporate - he'd still speak in nonsense syllables, but he'd gesture and pace and make oratory postures that would make a Roman senator proud. My grandma and my aunts and uncles didn't quite know what to do with this behavior, but my dad started to respond to it as if he could understand what my grandpa was saying.

Things like, "I know, right?" "What're ya gonna do?" "So then what happened?" The sort of things you'd say to someone ranting on the phone, just to let them know you're listening.

And Grandpa really responded to the attention. All this time, my family had mostly ignored his gibberish moments, just waited them out. Dad treated him like he had something to say. And you have to understand, my dad's a talker. He's fully capable of holding up more than his fair share of a conversation. So Dad would visit often (my parents and grandparents live two blocks apart) and they'd sit and chat, most of the time with Grandpa having no idea who the nice man was who liked to stop by to talk and fix his appliances.

One time Dad stopped by, he was wearing an inch-and-a-half button that read PAYNE FOR COMMISSIONER - he was running for local office at the time.

"That says Payne," my grandpa said, pointing at the button. "Your name Payne?"

"Yeah," my dad said to his father.

"That's my name too," Grandpa said, smiling.

"How 'bout that," my dad said.

I have no idea what that must have felt like for him, to look at your father while your father looks at a stranger.

There's a pretty good chance, I'm told, that I'll have that conversation with Dad someday. It's haunted me for years.
posted by The demon that lives in the air at 3:28 PM on February 6, 2012 [13 favorites]

Sitting at my desk at work, reading your stories. Crying. Coworkers probably think I am insane.
posted by darkfred at 3:46 PM on February 6, 2012

Damn it, I just want to live long enough for physical aging to become a treatable condition. Come on, scientists!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:03 PM on February 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

To those of you considering autoeuthenasia, remember that asphyxiation with an inert gas is the most painless, worry free way to die.
posted by clarknova at 4:07 PM on February 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

The day I get diagnosed with this is the day that I set about acquiring a lethal dose of heroin
posted by moorooka at 5:30 PM on February 6, 2012

Alzheimer’s. Perhaps my greatest fear.

It took my paternal grandmother, in her 60s, maybe her early 70s. Lucky for her, it took her before it ate her to a shell — she could still talk, she could still walk, she still had a bit of a sense of herself. But Alzheimer's ate her children — my father, his brothers and sisters — it ate them from the inside out, it ate them to shells, it ate them totally to shells if they were lucky, or shells containing considerable fear if they were not so lucky.

Fortunately for him (I'd say) and for me (of this I am absolutely certain), my father fell somewhere in between those two, he didn't get stuck in the terrors as a couple of his brothers did, he didn't fade to blank as his sisters did; he got between those two and was then given the gift of death. Those terrors; this remarkably social man, this unbelievably hard worker, a contributor until the day he could no longer contribute, eaten into by fears and confusions, chewed up at times by terror. So confused. Lost. Scared.

My father, scared — I still can scarce believe it, he wasn't afraid of anything, his faith his rock. He had this laughter that was just so remarkable, you couldn't have fear in the same place as his laughter.* So — Alzheimer's took his laughter. Nice, huh? He died in 2005, not long after Hurricane Katrina, at 84; his twin sister, my aunt Violet, she just got her leave last month, at 91. But my Aunt Vi had been long gone, fortunately for her she became an empty shell fast, her period of terror in this goddamned illness cut mercifully short, though her body kept plodding on.
*Of course my mother and us kids knew very well that his laughter was able to fit into the same place as the manic rages, but that's another thread, right, maybe sometime a manic depression thread will come up.

I was not real strong when my father had his worst times, and I could not be present as I'd have wanted, for which I felt considerable guilt at the time and in the intervening years. In my head, I know that I had to take care of my life, but that stubborn part of me tells me that I bailed when he needed me, tells me that I wasn't there. Well, I wasn't, but plenty of others were. I'd had my own health problems in 2004, a series of heart attacks that left me not so much physically weakened (though I was weaker, for sure; I'd been so goddamn strong) but absolutely unable to give, emotionally, psychically, not at the levels I'd been able to prior; I'd get off the phone after talking to him and cry like a kid, talking to him on my cell I'd have to pull to the side of the road, totally blown out.

I know that many here will wave their hands and laugh but you just go right on ahead, this is the truth — the one time my father had peace throughout that whole goddamn nightmare was in prayer, and that was also when he was most likely to be aware of his place in life. I remember being pulled off on the side of I35, praying with him over my cell, and he's absolutely present and in the moment and crystal clear as he asked for help for those suffering hurricane Katrina, as he asked for guidance and direction for them, and for us, for peace, which was always a prayer of his.
—— Every day at the dinner table "Our Heavenly Father — We thank you Lord, for this food, we ask that you use it to nourish and strengthen us. We pray that you lead us on the right path, we ask you for guidance and direction. We ask these things in Jesus name — Amen." That's not verbatim, but the lead-in "Our Heavenly Father" and the close "We ask these things in Jesus name — Amen" and asking for guidance and direction was in every prayer I ever heard him offer to whatever it is that prayer is offered to.
—— Those moments in prayer were beautiful and solemn — of course I didn't know this until many years later, as it was my everyday – and I am 100% positive that our family would have broken to splinters were it not for the daily prayers offered at table in that home; it's astonishing to me that it didn't shatter anyways.
—— Recently I heard from an old jr. high -- high school friend, and he told me that one of his strongest memories of myself and of my family was sitting at table, my father asking for grace as he did, Scott totally caught in the solemnity of the moment, how powerful and intimate it was, and someone kicked his foot and he looked over and I was sticking my tongue out at him, my thumbs in my ears, making faces or whatever, and he broke out laughing, which I am sure was what I'd intended, dickbrain that I was. I'm sortof horrified by it now of course, I tried to apologize to Scott and maybe even apologize back to that moment somehow, or my family, or all of it, I don't know. I don't remember it happening — though it sounds just like me, then — but Scott remembers it very well. I was a jagoff.

Prayer detour there — sorry. Gonna turn here, back to Alzheimer's.

My oldest sister, she doesn't say anything about it but I think she's scared, bad; she's 68. Alz has a huge genetic component, in fact the whole goddamn thing *is* a genetic gift, a legacy from my grandmothers family. My sister loves to read and reads everything and absolutely reads anything I tell her is good, I told her about the really great book Still Alice by Lisa Genova; my sister completely shut me down, would not talk about it, and we talk about EVERYTHING. So then I get scared that maybe she thinks she already has it and isn't saying, and not letting us all know. Yet I know that's her business, she gets to decide what she wants to do with her life, how to address an illness that comes her way.

She is the best sister a man could ever ask for, or a boy, too; she's been my champion my whole goddamn life. The idea of her fading, it's just almost unendurable.

Both her and my oldest brother — now 69 — are talking about "bucket lists" and this infuriates me, it's almost like they're welcoming it, damn sure not negating it. Some no doubt will say "Well hey, they're being realistic." but I say it's not so much realistic but rather it's pessimistic. Unless I get some horror show illness (such as Alz), I don't want to leave this motherfucker at all, not one little bit. I'm was 49 when I had those dang heart attacks and died, I'm pretty goddamned determined to get another 49, seems only fair; I'm like, look, life, you gave me that shit, now I get to hang around another 49, and this is *not* open to debate, so clam up, buzz off..

If I was to find out that this thing is happening to me, coming my way, that the game will be soon over. I'd say my goodbyes, tell people that it *is* goodbye, speak now or forever hold your peace, etc and etc. Then I'm pulling the plug, NYC and/or Paris again first maybe, Chicago for sure, maybe the bay area, but then pulling the plug while I'm still able to do so. I pretty much figure on the helium thing we talked about last year, and if for whatever reason that does not pan out, I've got a good friend who's a cleaned up junkie who will help; cleaned up or not, a junkie is a junkie is a junkie and he can score anything anytime he wants, it's like riding a bike, you never forget how to do it. Plus he'll take me out if I need his help, we've talked about it, dead seriously; I don't know how to hit a vein or an artery or whatever, to him it's ABC simple. I could use guns but that's a big mess, plus then the gun goes to the cop-shop, and I'd rather give mine away. Last option, pills, and I've got fistfuls of them set by but it's just so damned uncertain, I've known two guys who've taken enough to knock down two small horses yet awaken a day or two later, with the worst flipping hangover on the planet. No thank you on that one.

I know I'm going on here about suicide but Alz, hey, it's deep in my family line, and I've got no one to take care of me, nor money to do the long term facility routine, and damned if I want to rot in some warehouse somewhere, somebody changing my diapers when they're damn good and ready -- numh-unh, not I. I will be long out of this hotel prior to that, unless my fail-safes all fall through.

I've read up on Alzheimers, read a lot; some studies have shown that coffee every day is a good thing – well hey, I'm on it then. Also, anti-inflammatory medications, daily, over long periods of time has shown some signs of ... something, so I took aleive daily for a long while but then got to looking deeper and found that for people with cardiac problems it's a complete foolishness to take these things at all, much less daily over the long haul. So, coffee. Exercise. Wild-caught, cold-water, oily fish, jammed with the good guy oils. I read a lot, play computer solitaire, which probably isn't as good as chess to keep the mind moving but it's not bad, all that planning ahead, using vision and primary logic skills in FreeCell and/or Minesweeper. I'm not a social butterfly but I do have deep connections with a number of people, engaged in their lives, and they in mine. All of these things are *supposed* to help, or might. I'm willing to give it as much a shot as I can; there is a good chance that I've got this Alzheimer's latentin my brain, I'm trying to do what I can to keep it latent

Regardless all of that, my hope — prayer, truth be told, and hope, but hope and prayer do fit together nicely, IMO — my hope is that some of these spectacular research doctors will come up with more and more help for those of us with it in our background, so as to treat it before it's even symptomatic, but also once it is symptomatic. A large order. But there are people working on it today, I'd want to shake their hand, I would be honored to buy them a cup of coffee or a nice hat or what-have-you.
posted by dancestoblue at 3:24 AM on February 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Skin cancer drug halts and reverses symptoms of Alzheimer's in mice.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:02 PM on February 10, 2012

There has been much speculation that the progression of Maurice Ravel's cerebral disease affected the composition of his later works, including Bolero (eg. Maurice Ravel and right-hemisphere musical creativity: influence of disease on his last musical works?).

A very interesting article in Brain described a similar progression in the visual art produced by a scientist called Anne Adams; it was reported in the NYTimes.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 2:40 AM on February 12, 2012

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