When American artist William Utermohlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 1995, he decided to make the best use of his limited time and memory. He began to use his art to understand himself better – for five years, he drew portraits of himself before he completely forgot how to draw.
Through this unique series of self-portraits, viewers can observe the London-based artist’s quiet descent into dementia. As the terrible disease took control of his mind, his world began to tilt and his perspectives flattened. The details in his paintings melted away and they became more abstract. At times, he seemed aware of the technical flaws in his work, but he simply could not figure out how to correct them.
“The spacial sense kept slipping, and I think he knew,” said Patricia Utermohlen, William’s wife and a professor of art history. “In these pictures we see with heart-breaking intensity William’s efforts to explain his altered self, his fears and his sadness. Even the time he was beginning to be ill, he was always drawing, every minute of the day.”
According to Dr. Bruce Miller, a neurologist at the University of California, “Alzheimer’s affects the right parietal lobe in particular, which is important for visualizing something internally and then putting it onto a canvas. The art becomes more abstract, the images are blurrier and vague, more surrealistic. Sometimes there’s use of beautiful, subtle color.”
The paintings were later studied by a psychoanalyst, who wrote that they depicted sadness, anxiety, resignation and feelings of shame.
William stopped painting in the year 2000, when he was moved to a nursing home. He remained there until his death in 2007, at the age of 74. Ironically, his work received more recognition after he had ceased to dra, than it ever did when he was at the heights of his career. His self-portraits and other paintings have been exhibited in many cities around the world.
“He’s always been the outsider,” said Patricia. “He was never quite in the same time slot with what was going on. It’s so strange to be known for something you’re doing when you’re rather ill. I say he died in 2000, because he died when he couldn’t draw anymore. He actually died in 2007, but it wasn’t him by then.”
Photos: William Utermohlen Official Website
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