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From Canyon To Cove: Art as mental exercise

What Alzheimer’s disease takes away from its victims can’t be restored or replaced — at least with current medicine. The sense of self and knowing who you are is the cruelest cut for those with advanced Alzheimer’s.

But sometimes art can fill that void. At least, that’s the hope for families whose relatives attend the adult day care facility at the Alzheimer’s Family Services Center in Huntington Beach.

The center bills itself as the only Alzheimer’s resource center in Orange County. While other adult day care centers give dementia sufferers a place to socialize and enjoy supervised activities that would be difficult or impossible at home, the center has embarked on an unusual art therapy program under the watchful eye of certified art therapist Tonia Vojtkofsky.

Now celebrating its 30th year, the center has put together a “traveling art show” of some two dozen artworks created by patients. Last week a selection of works from the traveling show came to Rohrer Gallery in Laguna Beach, in a warm reception hosted by Lagunans Carey and Corinne Conklin.

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Carey, who works at the gallery, first gave us a small tour of works that Rohrer is especially proud of, including a pint-sized Renoir and a beautiful portrait by Berthe Morisot. And he pointed out a diminutive, centuries-old palace guard statue, which I like to think of as depicting our fearless leader here at the paper, Sam Zell.

But the main event was the showing of works by the Alzheimer’s patients. Anyone familiar with the mental ravages of Alzheimer’s disease would have low expectations for such artwork. But the small selection of framed paintings stood up well against the backdrop of masterworks at Rohrer.

In fact, just as great art does, the little paintings presented authentic images of the artists’ minds.

“We are bringing out the best in people with Alzheimer’s through art,” Cordula Dick-Muehlke, the center’s executive director, told the gathering of supporters. “We are bringing out the personhood of people with Alzheimer’s disease.”

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Art can be extremely therapeutic for people who have lost mental abilities, said art therapist Vojtkofsky.

“Art exercises the brain,” she said. “The degenerative process [of Alzheimer’s] impairs many abilities, but many remain. They can do art and feel successful at it.

“Art is a mental exercise and means of nonverbal communication. It’s a way to share themselves with the world. Their verbal skills decrease but artwork speaks for them and is a way of social connection, of creative experience together.”

As important as self-expression is the feeling that one has been heard. And these works, all abstracts, spoke volumes.

One painting, “A Day in Tuscany,” had the delicious pastels of an Italian landscape. Vojtkofsky said the painting was the first for the artist, who looked with dismay at the blank paper before her, then lit up when she recaptured “one of the best memories of her life” and decided to put it on paper, Vojtkofsky said.

As Vojtkofsky said, in the painting you can “hear the emotional message” which has little or no other outlet for a person with severe dementia.

Other works also conveyed their message through shape and color — and through their whimsical or telling titles.

“Fire Flowers” was a colorful array of blooms.

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My favorite title was “Holding Back the Flowers,” an abstractionist landscape that looked like a huge flower bed bursting at the seams and seemed like a real expression of spring.

Then there was one that resonated so strongly that it remains in my mind.

The artist, a man, had painted a series of monochromatic lines that looked like a filled-in Richter scale, or an up-and-down line on a stock chart or a line on a heart monitoring machine. It was titled simply, “Man.”

Conklin is hoping to get some of the works back to Rohrer so that more people can enjoy them. For more information about the Alzheimer’s Family Services Center, visit www.AFSCenter.org.


CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 380-4321 or cindy.frazier@latimes.com.


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