For years, an artist with Alzheimer’s disease created self-portraits. His unique yet gradually distorted view of himself is interesting.

The American artist Willian Utermohlen, who was based in the UK, did a brave and outstanding thing. Instead of giving up and doing nothing, when diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, he decided to continue his artwork. In fact, he created self-portraits up until the end of his life.

What Alzheimer’s does to the mind of an artist

Alzheimer’s disease does cruel things to its victims’ minds, as many of us may already know. Not only does it attack the memory, but it also attacks visualization, which is key to many artists. Just one year after Utermohlen was diagnosed, he decided to continue his portraits throughout the ravages of the disease. Here is Utermohlen’s self-portrait several decades before the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease:

1967

Artist with Alzheimer's 1995

Unfortunately, Utermohlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1995. But as I stated before, he did not give up at the horror of reality. Instead, he decided to document his journey through how he saw himself. Here is his first self-portrait the following year after his diagnosis:

1996

Alzheimer's disease self-portrait 1996

We must take into account that the natural aging process changed this man over the decades. However, as you will notice in the progression of the following portraits, there is more than the age at play. Over time, Utermohlen’s idea of himself changes from more than aging. Look for yourself. First, here’s another from the same year:

1996

Alzheimer's disease self-portrait

I cannot tell you what Utermohlen was thinking, but I can give an opinion. In this second portrait from 1996, he seems to feel the darkness of his disease creeping into his mind. The confusion and depression may be present at the time of this portrait. But we will never know what was truly going on inside his thoughts during this work.

1997

alzheimer's disease self-portrait 1997

Another year passes, and there doesn’t seem to be much change in his work. The only thing I can see here is Utermohlen’s strength and his ability to remain lucid despite the work of his disease. You can see both, but you can also see the artist’s relentless fight to produce beautiful renditions of himself.

1997

Alzheimer's disease self-portrait

Another from the same year. The struggle here is evident.

1998

Alzheimer's disease self-portrait 1998

This self-portrait from 1998 makes me feel sad, much more than the rest. It’s as if Utermohlen feels himself shrinking and withering away… whoever he is. Alzheimer’s disease, a cruel monster, makes you feel helpless and makes you forget exactly who feels this way. Not only do you forget everyone you knew, but you forget everything within whoever you are as well.

Strangely, there is still a beauty in the colors of this one, and even in the helpless smile that the artist with Alzheimer’s tries to convey in both the mouth and the eyes.

1999

Alzheimer's disease self-portrait 1999

At first glance, you may not see a face at all, but if you look closely, you may see two. Is Utermohlen, the Artist with Alzheimer’s, trying to create the younger face he knew or the stranger’s face he sees in the mirror? Maybe he is creating both simultaneously.

2000

artist with Alzheimer's self-portrait 2000

Finally, this is the last portrait our artist with Alzheimer’s completes, to our knowledge, of course. The only thing I wonder about this one is that maybe he is battling with the absolute memory of how to draw a face at all. But I will leave that assumption where it is. You can decide for yourself.

Patricia, the artist’s widow says this,

“In these pictures, we see with heartbreaking intensity, William’s efforts to explain his altered self, his fears, and his sadness”

His widow knew him the best, and in her essay, she explains the best she can what her husband was going through. My opinions do not matter when it comes to someone so close to him, but it’s interesting to look at these portraits and wonder at the struggles he must have been going through as an artist with Alzheimer’s disease. The mind is a powerful thing, a creative playground, but when it starts to slip away, it’s truly an artist’s tragedy.

What are your thoughts?

Sherrie Hurd, A.A.

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This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Kellly T

    Wow.
    Thank you for discovering these and sharing them. His work is striking, startling and ultimately heartbreaking. It’s a shame that someone so expressive was consumed by that awful disease.

    1. Sherrie Hurd, A.A.
      Sherrie Hurd, A.A.

      It was haunting. I did enjoy writing about this, but I was also sad as well. It made me want to do something similar with my artwork. Maybe…

  2. Avatar
    Stephen Jackson

    Brave, shocking, pitiable, truly tragic. Talk about a picture and a thousand words… this sequence says more than all the scientific papers and testimonies you’ll ever read.

    1. Sherrie Hurd, A.A.
      Sherrie Hurd, A.A.

      I agree.
      Thank you for reading, Stephen.

  3. Avatar
    Chrysogonus Chilaka

    Very astonishing and heartrending for our pictures are always with us in all our struggles for survival and existence. However, it teaches about the sufferings people undergo in the world and it calls for a helping hand to your fellow neighbor .

    1. Sherrie Hurd, A.A.
      Sherrie Hurd, A.A.

      Thank you for reading, Chrysogonus

      I could say so much, but rather I am almost speechless.

  4. Avatar
    Red-Sky

    thank you so much! heart wrenching, My mother was a beautiful singer, always singing. At the end of her life with dementia she could only hum. We would clap at her renditions and she would smile. However, we had no idea what songs she was humming. It didn’t matter though because we all believed she must have been hearing beautiful music in her head and she must have known what songs she was humming. Those humming songs.

    1. Sherrie Hurd, A.A.
      Sherrie Hurd, A.A.

      This is beautiful and heartwrenching. Thank you for sharing and thank you for reading.

  5. Avatar
    Marcia Reisz

    Oh how incredibly heartbreaking. Alzheimers runs in my family and I expect that I will experience it eventually (I’m 64 yo). It distresses me so much to envision this devolution and death. How it will affect my loved ones. My heart explodes with empathy…. and a bit of fear. I’m mesmerized by the paintings, the clarity of his vision of himself. Marcia

    1. Sherrie Hurd, A.A.
      Sherrie Hurd, A.A.

      My aunt passed from Alzheimer’s. I hope and pray that it skips you and you live a wonderful life of memories.

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