It’s the morning of Aug. 2 and I’m sitting across from Leonard Larson.
We’re at the Skyline Retirement Community in Seattle and he’s telling me about his art. As someone who was born in Centralia and grew up in the area, it’s no surprise that he likes to paint landscapes — specifically trees.
“My dad was a logger so I grew up in woods,” he said, adding that he likes to paint using oils as well as watercolors.
He also told me he’s not able to do faces.
“That’s very difficult to do,” Larson, who goes by Lenny, said.
When he says all of this, it is not the first — nor last — time he tells me during our conversation.
Larson, who admits to having lost track of his age — maybe he’s 89 or 90, he shrugs (but he’s “young at heart”) — has vascular dementia.
During our interview, he gives me the impression that he has been painting his whole life. But when I ask Dee Dunbar, a longtime friend who knew Larson about 10 years before his diagnosis, she tells me painting has never been something she has known about him. And aside from an oil painting in his home, whose origins are unclear, she said she has never seen any evidence that Larson has painted throughout his life.
Whether or not art has been part of Larson’s earlier life, it is part of his life now. And some of the works he has produced in recent years are currently on display in The Gardens at Town Square, a senior living community in Bellevue.
His pieces are part of “The Art of Alzheimer’s,” an exhibit that celebrates “the creativity of persons living with dementia,” according to its website, theartofalzheimers.org. The mission of the exhibit is to empower the artists to “enrich their lives through art within a dementia-friendly community.”
“It all came from my mother,” said Marilyn Raichle, who is the exhibit curator and director of “The Art of Alzheimer’s.”
Her mother had Alzheimer’s from the age of 82 until she died at 96. Raichle said when her father died at 89, she and her siblings needed to find a way for their mother, who was the same age, to fill time. So they enrolled her in an art class through Elderwise, an organization focused on recognizing and nurturing the “value and wholeness of older adults, regardless of their cognitive or physical ability,” according to its website, www.elderwise.org.
“She really thought [the art class] was stupid,” Raichle said, adding that at that point, her mother hadn’t painted since she was a child.
That said, her mother produced amazing paintings, she added. Raichle described her mother while painting as “totally there.” She said her mother was joyful and expressed herself through painting.
There’s this assumption about people with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia that they become “empty shells where people used to be,” Raichle said. As a result, these individuals are not taken seriously. The goal of “The Art of Alzheimer’s” is to tell a different story surrounding the disease and to treat people as human beings.
The exhibit features paintings by seven different artists from the greater Puget Sound area.
Raichle said when you think of someone with dementia, pride is not a common trait associated with them. But the sense of pride she has seen from the artists in the exhibit as well as from their families has been “profound.” Raichle added that when people see the art their loved one has produced, it is often something they themselves are not able to do.
“I’m in awe of what they paint because I couldn’t do it,” she said.
I was also in awe when I visited The Gardens on Aug. 1 and was given a tour of the exhibit. While my creativity comes through my writing and I don’t consider myself exactly artistic, I was very impressed by the pieces on display, and there was one in particular I really liked and could see it hanging somewhere in my apartment.
Dianne Miller, a resident at The Gardens, said she and fellow residents were “eager to see the art,” when they learned the exhibit would be coming to their community.
The exhibit opened at The Gardens earlier this summer with a gala reception with a few of the artists in attendance.
“We were just very supportive [of the artists and the exhibit] because it means a lot to us personally,” Miller said about how Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia affect so many people.
Miller’s husband had a stroke at about Christmas last year and is a memory care resident in rehab at The Gardens.
“I would love to see my husband do something like this,” she said about him taking art classes and painting.
Miller’s husband is one of 24 residents in memory care at The Gardens. The residents usually have a diagnosis of dementia and/or Alzheimer’s. The abilities of this population vary and can change with disease progression.
The Gardens is an integrated senior living community and also has 99 residents in independent and assisted living. Independent living residents care for themselves while assisted living folks might need a little help around their homes or with moving about.
When “The Art of Alzheimer’s” arrived at The Gardens, residents voted on their favorite painting. The winner was one of Larson’s, who said the artists should be very proud of the fact that their work is displayed somewhere. It’s a “feather in the cap,” he said.
“The Art of Alzheimer’s” will be at The Gardens through October, when it will move to University House in Seattle through March 2020. It will spend a month in Yakima before returning to the Eastside at Jefferson House in Kirkland. The exhibit will end at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle before the pieces are returned to the artists in January 2021.
Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact editor Samantha Pak at firstname.lastname@example.org.