Exhibit at Steel Plaza T-Station looks at Alzheimer's unique, universal challenges
By Kurt Shaw
Published: Saturday, June 29, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Affecting more than 5 million Americans, Alzheimer's is a progressive disease that steals memories and affects all mental faculties. And if you are the caregiver of a loved one afflicted with it, then you know all too well the powerful grip this incurable disease can have on the life of that person, as well as your own.
That's the subject of a new exhibit titled “Art Interprets Alzheimer's,” which can be seen at Society for Contemporary Craft's Satellite Gallery in the lobby of the Steel Plaza T-Station at One Mellon Center, Downtown.
Organized by the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve in Cleveland, this traveling exhibit features 13 ceramic sculptures by artist George Roby and 28 black-and-white photographs by Herbert Ascherman Jr. that deal with the debilitating effects of Alzheimer's.
An art teacher for 35 years who has consistently made, sold and exhibited sculpture and functional pottery, Roby maintains a studio at his home in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, which he shares with his wife, Sue, who has Alzheimer's.
As a vehicle to experience and understand his wife's changing behavior, Roby began a series of sculptures back in 2010, which mirror the couple's thoughts and emotions dealing with the disease. Most of that work comprises Roby's half of the exhibition, with the other half being portraits by Ascherman of Alzheimer's sufferers.
“This exhibit was the first time, outside of filling pottery orders and commissions, that I worked with such intent and intention,” Roby says. “It was a challenge, especially, because many times I did not know what was going to happen next. The same is true of AD (Alzheimer's).”
Roby says the first piece he created, “First Signs,” which he completed in 2010, “simply happened on its own.”
“I'm not sure what triggered the idea, except that being a caregiver for my wife has consumed large amounts of my time and thoughts,” he says.
Having fallen victim to the disease more than a decade ago, Sue Roby, as well as her husband, have been involved with Alzheimer's research studies since 2000.
“I have been interviewed constantly about my observations and feelings about my wife's journey through Alzheimer's disease, hence, much observing and contemplation about not only my thoughts and feelings, but Sue's as well,” Roby says.
After creating that first piece, Roby says, “Over the next year, about a dozen ideas evolved based on my observations of Sue, my reaction to what I was seeing, my thinking about how do I tell others, my experience with research, interactions with other people, with other caregivers and Alzheimer's association professionals.”
“Some ideas came out of the blue, some came from seeing clay shapes lying about the studio, playing around, questions and frustrations that kept nagging at me,” Roby says.
For example, “This Is Your Brain on Alzheimer's” is clearly a piece inspired by the “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” campaign in the 1990s, “but I thought it got the point across pretty clearly,” Roby says.
“ ‘We All Forget Sometimes Yes, But It's Not the Same!' was stimulated by the number of times I heard people tell Sue that,” Roby says. “I thought that it was out of misunderstanding the disease or not knowing what to say when someone says that they have AD. They were awkward moments, and my own feelings were uncertain, on edge, uncomfortable. I think we could talk about this notion for quite a while.”
With the piece “No Two Stories Are the Same, or Are They?” Roby says he became aware of the idea that everyone's story he had heard was unique, yet there were a lot of similarities. “Someone said that if you knew one person with AD, you knew one person with AD. The tracking of this disease is so individual, but we are all going through the same experience, and we're learning a lot from those who had gone before. It is a tremendous shared-learning experience.”
Though nearly all of the pieces Roby created for this exhibit are on display, he says there is one last piece that is not at One Mellon Center, and that is “Lost in the Land of Loss,” which interested viewers can see on display at Society for Contemporary Craft's main site in the Strip District.
“It was stimulated by my imagining what one must feel when they sense loss of where they are, where they were going, what they were trying to say or think and they simply don't know what to do,” he says. “My imagining was very scary to me, but then I also realized that many with AD have a reduced sense of self-awareness. They do not know that they do not know and may just laugh it off or very soon forget it. Such a conundrum.”
To that end, he says, “I often felt that going through the making of these sculptures was a kind of metaphor or alter-experience of what one goes through if they have AD.”
As mentioned above, the work is complimented by Ascherman's rather telling portraits of Alzheimer sufferers, such as his portrait of Tom O'Malley, which he photographed in 2011.
“This portrait, as with the rest, was taken in a very casual, almost snapshotty, manner, primarily as to not upset the participant with an environment or scenario that might in any way create disruptive or annoying experience,” Ascherman says.
Although he worked with a large 8-by-10 view camera and photographed on sheet film, Ascherman says he tried to make the sitting experience “as unimposing as possible,” due largely to the collaborative efforts of the caregiver who was always in view of the sitter.
That taken into account, these portraits are, nonetheless, intimate windows into the lives of the sitters at the time they were photographed.
“My concept was to convey the difference between the book cover and its contents,” Ascherman says “Each of the portraits showed a person at a different age or with a different developmental level of Alzheimer's. Mr. O'Malley succumbed several months after this portrait was taken.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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