Art brought dad and daughter together after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis

Artist Karen Fisher is pictured with her father who had Alzheimer’s. Their special relationship inspired her current art exhibit. CONTRIBUTED
Artist Karen Fisher is pictured with her father who had Alzheimer’s. Their special relationship inspired her current art exhibit. CONTRIBUTED

Two exhibits at downtown Dayton gallery explore the impact of the disease

When the neurologists first told Karen Fisher that her beloved father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, they said eventually the disease could cause him to become violent and combative.

“He was such a kind, gentle person, I couldn’t imagine it,” says Fisher, who is an artist. “I wanted to preserve my memories of my father the way he was and so I began making paintings of him holding flowers.”

One of those images is the signature painting in Fisher’s current exhibit, “The Darker Sooner,” now on display at the Dana L. Wiley Gallery located in the Front Street Gallery complex in downtown Dayton. Through 14 large mixed-media pieces, her show explores the impact of Alzheimer’s and related dementia on people and society. The title is taken from a poem by Catherine Wing, who teaches poetry at Kent State University.

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In addition to Fisher’s own paintings, the gallery is hosting a complementary exhibit: “Connections: Moments of Clarity.” The innovative show brings together the works of 32 professional artists with the work of residents in memory care facilities. The paired watercolor paintings, designed to spark connections and moments of clarity for people living with dementia, also enable families in our community to connect with their loved ones. On May 13, there will be a virtual gallery tour of the exhibit which can be accessed through the gallery website. The pairings will be auctioned May 15.

“Not only has this project created an opportunity to have a dialogue about those with dementia, but proceeds from the silent auction will enable the Alzheimer’s Association to help more people living with dementia and their caregivers,” says Eric VanVlymen, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association Miami Valley Chapter. “The art speaks powerfully about the resilience of those with this disease.”

Karen Fisher’s father, Billy Joe Johnson, suffered from Alzheimer’s and is pictured with his cardinal painting. CONTRIBUTED
Karen Fisher’s father, Billy Joe Johnson, suffered from Alzheimer’s and is pictured with his cardinal painting. CONTRIBUTED

Karen Fisher’s story

Fisher, a graduate of Vandalia-Butler schools and Wright State University, married her high school sweetheart, raised her family in Tipp City and began her career as a teacher. But after moving to Colorado in 1998, she began to think seriously about becoming a full-time artist. In 2012, she left her teaching career to pursue her passion.

After her first grandchild was born in Ohio, Fisher and her husband began living and working both in Ohio and in Colorado. “My studio in Vandalia backs to a nature conservancy,” she says. “I became obsessed with taking pictures of birds in flight as they came to my bird feeder. Those birds-in-flight photos became a way for me to connect with my dad after his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s dementia in 2013.”

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As the disease took away her father’s ability to function normally, Fisher began looking for ways to enter her father’s world. “Sitting with my dad as he painted birds in flight using my photo references gave me glimpses of him before dementia. I got to see how a paintbrush in his hand could reach a place in his mind and give him a moment of clarity of language both visually and audibly.”

She says her father, who passed away in 2017, not only carefully drew the image, he readily asked for the tools he needed. “Even though it was a mystery to me how he could access this knowledge so readily, I was grateful for those small moments when he seemed free from the grip of the disease,” she says.

Those with dementia become increasingly anxious, confused and have a deep desire to go home. This mixed media artwork by Karen Fisher is entitled “Take Me Home.” “Unmoored, no longer at home in their lives, they search for what they’ve lost,” says Fisher. “Maybe home is not a where, but a when. Are they hoping to go home to a time when they felt safe and secure? Maybe home is not a dwelling, but an identity, a need to come home to oneself, an existential longing for where we were born, for our childhood, our parents, our earliest home. Where is home?”
Those with dementia become increasingly anxious, confused and have a deep desire to go home. This mixed media artwork by Karen Fisher is entitled “Take Me Home.” “Unmoored, no longer at home in their lives, they search for what they’ve lost,” says Fisher. “Maybe home is not a where, but a when. Are they hoping to go home to a time when they felt safe and secure? Maybe home is not a dwelling, but an identity, a need to come home to oneself, an existential longing for where we were born, for our childhood, our parents, our earliest home. Where is home?”

“The Darker Sooner” exhibit

In 2018, Fisher was approached by the owners of the Dana L. Wiley Gallery to discuss a solo exhibition of her artwork. She suggested a show that would raise awareness of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Owners Dana Wiley and Gary Hinsche embraced the idea; both had personal experiences with family members who’ve suffered from the illness.

The resulting exhibition, “The Darker Sooner,” focuses on the realities of someone who is living with dementia or the caregiver dealing with the disease. “I wanted to use a large format — 60- x 48-inch canvases — to bring the viewer within terrifying proximity of the disease, exposing it, revealing the way it has the power to devour a person, a caregiver, a family,” Fisher explains.

Artist Karen Fisher’s “Golden Years” portrays a couple celebrating 60 years of marriage, yet it is a bittersweet moment. “She remembers their vows -- in sickness and in health, and she understands all too well that she is no longer his wife; she is his caregiver,” writes Fisher in her artist’s statement. “Heartbroken yet determined to see him through the stages of Alzheimer’s dementia, she becomes the gatekeeper, custodian of their past. It is a gradual loss. It is the long goodbye.”
Artist Karen Fisher’s “Golden Years” portrays a couple celebrating 60 years of marriage, yet it is a bittersweet moment. “She remembers their vows -- in sickness and in health, and she understands all too well that she is no longer his wife; she is his caregiver,” writes Fisher in her artist’s statement. “Heartbroken yet determined to see him through the stages of Alzheimer’s dementia, she becomes the gatekeeper, custodian of their past. It is a gradual loss. It is the long goodbye.”

Fisher’s favorite mediums are oils and mixed-media painting using found papers, photo-transfers, hand-made papers, charcoal, oil pastels, acrylic paint and collage. She also loves dabbling in watercolor, medium-format film photography and digital photography.

One of the pieces in the show is entitled “Life Taking You Nowhere” and pictures an older woman in a car. “The issue of driving is a watershed moment and one that is the hardest to broach with your loved one when the time comes to take away the keys,” writes Fisher in her artist statement. “While working on this painting, I was listening to David Bowie’s ‘Golden Years’ and the verse, ‘Don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere…’ stuck in my head. But to be in the grips of dementia is to be on the road to nowhere. Bowie goes on to sing, “Nothing’s gonna touch you in these golden years.” If only that were true. Alzheimer’s dementia not only touches you, it is the cruelest thief who rummages through your life stealing away your most precious possessions.”

During her painting session Deborah McLoud, who resides at Brookdale Centennial, said she loves the Impressionists. She was paired with artist Kevin Harris. Her watercolor, on the left, is titled “Symphony of Sublime Bloom of Color.“ Harris' piece is on the right. CONTRIBUTED
During her painting session Deborah McLoud, who resides at Brookdale Centennial, said she loves the Impressionists. She was paired with artist Kevin Harris. Her watercolor, on the left, is titled “Symphony of Sublime Bloom of Color.“ Harris' piece is on the right. CONTRIBUTED

The Memories in the Making program

It was in Denver that Fisher heard about the “Memories in the Making” program, which offers creative art expression for individuals with mild cognitive impairment and early to middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease. “It is designed to serve as a communication tool for families and professional caregivers to learn more about the person with dementia,” she explains.

Residents in a memory care facility create watercolor paintings and share stories about their art while a facilitator documents these memories. “I wanted to bring a similar experience to Dayton with proceeds benefiting the Dayton Alzheimer’s Association Miami Valley Chapter because the Dayton chapter was so important to our family as we went on this devastating journey with my father,” Fisher says. “Their advice and support made all the difference in how we cared for him. Every step of the way, we received information as to how to handle each stage of the disease.”

Keiko Wilson, a resident at 10 Wilmington Place, works on her painting. CONTRIBUTED
Keiko Wilson, a resident at 10 Wilmington Place, works on her painting. CONTRIBUTED

During the months of September thru November 2019, Fisher and two other artists — Scott D.U. Gibbs and Rusty Harden — entered Dayton-area memory care facilities and worked with over 30 residents with varying dementia diagnoses. ”I witnessed the joy that one hour of painting could bring to someone who might otherwise be spending that hour unengaged or alone in their own thoughts,” Fisher says. The memory care facilities included 10 Wilmington Place, Brookdale Centennial, Brookdale Oakwood, Randall Residence and Bethany Village.

“Folks really just want an opportunity to express themselves and be recognized and however we can get to that, that is the best expression and really works towards the value that we have for wholeness of life,” says Jackie D’Aurora of Bethany Village, Graceworks. “That’s what we have been striving for, for all of our residents.”

Joyce Reese, who resides at Brookdale Oakwood, said she likes to walk in the mountains. Her painting on the left, “Purple Mountain,” is paired with a watercolor by professional artist Gretchen Jacobs. CONTRIBUTED
Joyce Reese, who resides at Brookdale Oakwood, said she likes to walk in the mountains. Her painting on the left, “Purple Mountain,” is paired with a watercolor by professional artist Gretchen Jacobs. CONTRIBUTED

When the resident’s artwork was complete, professional artists from throughout the Miami Valley were invited to choose a painting and then to react to it through their own work. The “pairings,” starting at $150, will be auctioned May 15.

“Dementia is such a dark disease, but when one can engage in art-making, we can see a little bit of light shine through,” says Fisher. “Even after people with dementia have lost the ability to use words, they are often able to express thoughts and emotions and to share memories through painting.”

HOW TO GO

What: “Connections: Moments of Clarity” featuring work by Dayton-area artists and residents in memory care facilities. “The Darker Sooner,” Dayton and Denver artist Karen Fisher exploring the impact of Alzheimer’s.

Where: Dana L. Wiley Gallery 1001 E. 2nd St., Suite 2405, Dayton, OH 45402. Located through the B/C entrance in the Front Street Building complex.

When: Through May 16.

How: To view the exhibits in person, make an appointment by clicking on the Schedule A Visit page on the website: danalwileygallery.com. Or call (937) 475-3794 or (937) 999-4351.

To purchase the art: The “pairings” and three donated pieces are posted on the Dana L. Wiley Gallery Facebook page. A virtual gallery tour preview of the exhibit will be available on Thursday, May 13. The Silent Auction is from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. on Saturday, May 15. You’ll find the link to the auction on the website.

Related programming: Unmasking Alzheimer’s Dementia, at 7 p.m. on Saturday, May 8. Artists Scott Gibbs and Jennifer Rospert will talk with Karen Fisher. The discussion and Q&A will be presented on the gallery’s Facebook page.

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