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Painting: the Medium of Memories

March 27, 1995|Ann Conway

For years, Alex, an Alzheimer's patient, had an agonizing story to tell.

But he told no one, not even members of his family, about the horrors he experienced during his service in World War II.

Then, late in life, during an art program for people with Alzheimer's disease, Alex began to paint--black, blotchy depictions of the dark memories that raged inside him.

And he began to talk, said Selly Jenny, artistic director of "Memories in the Making," an exhibit by Alzheimer's patients on view at the Newport Harbor Art Museum over the weekend.

He told his art instructor, " 'We landed on the beach. . . . There was so much smoke . . . so much blood--blood everywhere,' " Jenny confided during the exhibit's opening reception Wednesday.

Then his paintings changed. Suddenly, tall palms and emerald lawns emerged from Alex's canvases, bright green works such as "Spring Trees," which was on display next to his dark "Soldier's Story" at the sixth annual exhibit.

"Those memories of war were locked deep inside of him," Jenny explained. "After he painted them, he was able to go on to happier memories . . . those that came from living in California after the war."

More than 300 guests attended the gala kickoff of the exhibit sponsored by the Alzheimer's Assn. of Orange County.

The project was dedicated to President Ronald Reagan, who has Alzheimer's--a progressive, degenerative brain disease that results in profound memory loss and death.

When guests weren't viewing the artwork, they were sipping wine, dining on appetizers and bidding on the paintings during a silent auction.

Keeping his eye on the bids was Robert Rosenberg, a board member of the Alzheimer's Assn., who has collected five works from past "Memories in the Making."

"I've paid as much as $2,000 for one of the paintings," said Rosenberg, who operates a Laguna Hills placement service for the elderly. "This is a time to honor those who can't speak for themselves. Through their artwork, these patients are showing us what they have inside.

"They don't have a lot to give, otherwise," he said.

Two colorful works by Vivian, mother of Marsha Grove of Huntington Beach, were on also display. "It is thrilling to see her art on these walls," Grove said. "Mother painted for enjoyment before she got her illness. Now I know she can still experience joy."


Paintings by Alzheimer's patients don't appear overnight, explained Jenny, who founded "Memories in the Making" as a volunteer outreach to help the patients express themselves. The painting workshops take place in convalescent homes and day-care centers.

"It takes a long time," she said. "First, we make friends with the patients. Then, we encourage them to work together on long banners and collages. After that, we help them do free doodling, and ask, 'What does this look like?'

"Then we begin scene-setting, bringing them objects that help awaken their long-term memory. We may talk, for example, about a senior prom and share gardenias, Glen Miller records.

"We try to set a mood, help them play games of 'Remember when?' Before we know it, we're getting all of these wonderful stories and paintings from them."

Said Carl Cotman, director of the Alzheimer's Disease and Research Treatment Center at UC Irvine: "Some scientists were going through this exhibit, asking, 'What is it we see here? Where is all this coming from?' "

They decided that, somehow, the creative spirit emerges despite the disease's attack, Cotman said. "These artworks are emotionally driven, creative X-rays. Truly remarkable."


An aristocratic shot in the arm: Designing Women, a support group of the Art Institute of Southern California in Laguna Beach, is picking up the tab for an Orange County appearance by Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill on April 7 at Crystal Court at South Coast Plaza.

Spencer-Churchill, grandniece of Sir Winston Churchill, lives on the 1,000-acre site of Blenheim Palace in England--where her famous uncle grew up--but she will be coming from business in Germany to serve as honorary chairwoman of the party that will launch Crystal Court's annual Spring Garden Show on April 8-10.

How did Designing Women line up the acclaimed interior designer and author--"Classic Decorative Details"--for their first flower-show benefit?

"I was able to get her phone number, so I just gave her a call," said party chairwoman Electa Anderson. "She is so kind. We've been talking on the phone for three months. I feel like I know her."

Anton Segerstrom, the manager of Crystal Court who founded the flower show six years ago, is pleased. "Electa is wonderful," he said. "I would venture to say this is going to become their (Designing Women's) event (in years to come).

"It's a good fit for us, and we're very excited about it." (Crystal Court is underwriting the party invitations, entertainment and food.)

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