This post was written by Dr. Daniel Potts, a neurologist, author, educator and champion of those living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias and their care partners. Read more about his work below.
Do you remember comedian, Bob Hope, signing off each TV special with the song, Thanks for the Memories? I do, and seem to come back to that very singable tune whenever I feel grateful for time spent in meaningful activity with loved ones and friends, doing something that makes us dance through the dust of our everyday lives.
I’m singing it now in gratitude for the opportunity to be a part of Kentuck Art Center’s An Examination of Memory Painting Exhibit, running through August 1 in downtown Northport, AL. This exhibition is a part of their year-long exhibition season The Mystic Cords of Memory. I encourage you, if you are able, to go to the Museum during open hours Monday-Friday, 9:30-5:30 and Saturday-Sunday, 12-4, to experience this beautiful and informative exhibit.
This exhibition features the work of memory painters, Maurice Cook, Theresa Gloster, Jessie Lavon, Ruth Robinson, Dorothy Shelby, and Jim Weaver. In addition to these works in our Museum Gallery, artwork by the clients at Caring Days Adult Dementia Daycare Center is on view in the SoNo Gallery. Memory painting is an important subgenre of American folk art in which artists tap into their own deeply-held memories, often rooted in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and adventures of childhood, and bring these experiences back to life on canvas, wood, and other materials.
Walking through the gallery and admiring the art after listening to the artists tell their stories, I was transported to my own childhood in rural Pickens County, Alabama. Sharecroppers, cotton fields, church singings and dinners-on-the-grounds, fishing excursions with my grandfather, and summer river swims welled up to the surface of awareness once again, stirring memory and art and story from the depths of what it means to be human.
Delving into the neuroscience of memory, one can be awed by the complexity and beauty of the brain’s capacity to preserve, over the course of a lifetime, the meaningful content of our lives. Selecting the sensory information which our brains have recorded, to which we have paid attention, and which has been most meaningful to us, our brains construct threads of autobiographical memory—the narrative of our lives—which can be replayed for decades when reactivated. Often it takes only something minor—a sight, perhaps, or smell, or song, or even a feeling—and we are a child again, wading in the streams of experience.
My father, Lester, a rural sawmiller from Pickens County, was not an artist—or so we thought—until he developed Alzheimer’s disease and attended Caring Days. Another memory painter of sorts, George Parker, shared his art with Dad and other clients, enabling Lester to discover his own talent for painting watercolors. Over about 4 years, Dad painted ~ 100 original watercolors, through which he not only revisited childhood memories, but also reclaimed a part of himself that he was losing to Alzheimer’s. This helped to restore dignity and quality of life, and gave him a rainbow-colored voice through which to share his story when he no longer had the words to do it. We will always give “thanks for the memories” to George Parker and the staff of Caring Days for this gift.
The works below are by Lester E. Potts, Jr. and were created in moderate to late-stage Alzheimer's. We will list these pieces again, along with commentary from Daniel Potts, MD, FAAN at the end of this blog.
Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard believed that art matters primarily because it assists with the “project of selfhood,” the shaping of life narrative/story. Both creating art and viewing it can connect us to ourselves and to our stories, and to others and their stories, as well. There seems to be a relational component to many of our most meaningful memories. No person is an island…no one stands alone. Our selves are woven (painted, perhaps) into the lives and stories of others.
One can feel the fabric of this shared life when viewing the work of the memory artists featured in the Kentuck Museum display. One is drawn into the paintings by these mystic cords that connect us to the past, tether us to the present, and draw us into the hope of ever-increasing beauty and unity in the future. We all need art to heal us in this, and other ways; to lead us out of this pandemic with inspiration and resiliency.
Thanks to these memory artists, and to the Kentuck Museum and its supporters and staff for giving this exciting opportunity to our community! If you can, please visit the museum in person and experience the amazing art of An Examination of Memory Painting.
And, thanks for the memories!
An Examination of Memory Painting is on view in Kentuck's Museum Gallery until August 1, 2021. If you are interested in purchasing a piece from the exhibition, please email our Gallery Shop Manager Mary Bell at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details. See the full exhibition here.
Kentuck's exhibitions are sponsored in part by the Alabama State Council on the Arts, the National Endowment of the Arts, and the Alabama Humanities Alliance.
WATCH: Memory, Forgetting, and Art: Preserving Personhood Through Artistic Expression, A Talk By Dr. Daniel Potts
Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN is a neurologist, author, educator and champion of those living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias and their care partners. Selected by the American Academy of Neurology as the 2008 Donald M. Palatucci Advocate of the Year, he also has been designated an Architect of Change by Maria Shriver. In 2016, he was chosen by the University of Alabama Medical Alumni Association as a recipient of the Martha Myers Role Model Award, which honors physician alumni whose lives epitomize the ideal of service to their communities. Along with his wife, Ellen W. Potts, MBA, he authored A Pocket Guide for the Alzheimer’s Caregiver, which is recommended by the Alzheimer’s Association, the American Academy of Neurology and Maria Shriver. Inspired by his father’s transformation from saw miller to watercolor artist in the throes of dementia through person-centered care and the expressive arts, Dr. Potts seeks to make these therapies more widely available through his foundation, Cognitive Dynamics. Additionally, he is passionate about promoting self-preservation and dignity for all persons with cognitive impairment. He practices neurology at the Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center.
Works by Lester E. Potts, Jr.
Birdhouses: Dad (Lester E. Potts, Jr.), grew up saw-milling in his father’s mill, and was a lifelong lover of trees, lumber, the woods, and woodworking. He enjoyed building bird houses for people in the community, especially the elderly or disabled. After the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, and having found his previously-unknown talent for creating watercolor art, Dad often used a birdhouse motif in his paintings, as seen in this piece created in moderate stage Alzheimer’s. Perhaps perseverating on this birdhouse theme enabled him to call up some remote memories, to see himself as giving back to the community again through the making of birdhouses, thus, supporting his personhood and narrative identity, even as Alzheimer’s was attempting to take it away.
Lester and Albert: Mr. Albert Corder, an African-American man who worked in Dad’s father’s sawmill, was a life-long friend of Dad’s and someone whom Dad was very fond of. Dad told me more than once, “If anything bad happens to me, call Mr. Albert.” And I think the feeling was mutual. Dad had spent many long hours pulling a crosscut saw with Mr. Albert, from a young age. In moderate to late-stage Alzheimer’s, when he had nearly lost the ability to express himself verbally, Dad painted this image of a black man and a white man sawing together. When the family asked if this was him and Mr. Albert, Dad placed his hand on the image and cried. Of course it was! And I suspect Dad was drawing comfort from the memory of Albert, and of their relationship, still embedded deeply in his long-term memory. This image is a wonderful illustration of the importance of relationships for persons living with dementia, and of the concept of relational identity—we are who we are, in part, through our relationships with others. I believe this concept becomes even more important in persons who may be struggling with their identity because of Alzheimer’s and other causes of dementia.
The Blue Collage: Dad’s best-known work, The Blue Collage has been featured in several textbooks, art gallery showings, scientific conferences, and articles because of the power of its imagery, and art therapists are impressed by its form. The image is like a self-portrait of my father, in abstract, created in late-stage Alzheimer’s when he could no longer put a sentence together. The image is believed to contain an abstract representation of his father. See if you can find the crosscut saw, high-topped Brogan shoe, and hat on top of a cross in the painting. These are items by which Dad’s father could be identified. It is interesting that they appear to be depicted from the perspective of a small child, with the shoe being much larger than the hat. Additionally, look for trees, leaves, a birdhouse, a fence, and a flowing movement in the cool blue lines. This painting, more than any other image I have ever seen, teaches me to always look for the person behind the mask of disease...they are still there. And many times, they may be reached through the expressive arts.