One Artist’s Descent into Alzheimer’s


Two pieces by Utermohlen

Ashleigh Judson, Reporter


Beginning in 1967, William Utermohlen started an informative series of self-portraits that narrates his descent into Alzheimer’s.  The series is not only a representation of what it is truly like to lose oneself, but a representation of “a slow, tragic fading, a loss of essence,” as described by Johnathan Green, provost and dean of Illinois Wesleyan University.  Beyond the oil smudges and canvas, it is an imperative story to be told about a disease that is uniquely human as well as the science behind it.

Within the first portrait, we see a detailed portrait of a man with a full understanding of lighting, shading, and other details even down to the stare of the man.  There is an all-knowing yet slightly ominous look behind the eyes, as if he is expecting what lies ahead in his future.  The second portrait from a few decades later illustrates a simple man drawn in vibrant colors, although the man is seen through a window sill, observed from an outside perspective.  This marks the beginnings of Utermohlen’s battle with Alzheimer’s. 

Utermohlen’s portraits give us a different perspective of the emotional experience behind the clinical disease.  Scientists have explained Alzheimer’s as a neurodegenerative disease that largely relies on a protein called tau.  This protein ultimately tangles neurons in the brain resulting in cell death and irreversible brain atrophy (shrinkage).  

Novato High’s Psychologist, Arezu Iranipour, elaborated on Alziehmer’s symptoms that largely go overlooked in an email. 

“It can cause a loss of inhibition and distrust in others.  You can lose the ability to make sound and rational decisions.  You forget how to do simple tasks that you’ve done hundreds of times before,” she explained.  

Taking this into consideration along with common symptoms such as confusion with time or place, trouble speaking, writing and understanding faces results in an individual who has lost all sense of self.  

One of the most recognizable symptoms Utermohlen struggled with was the understanding of spatial relationships.  This symptom is noticeable throughout the rest of his artistic career as depicted in some of his more disorienting pieces.

It is also worth noting that these paintings mark the last time that Utermohlen uses short noun titles.  Following his 1995 painting titled “Blue Skies”, his titles take a turn to much more heartfelt and painful titles such as, “Self Portrait (sad)” and “Broken Figure.”

Perhaps one of the most haunting portraits is his addition from 1996, which depicts a broken and defeated Utermohlen punctuated by the skull-like drawing. This is the final layer of the piece.  The background and subject of the portraits have gone from vibrant touches of yellow, red and blue to muddy and uneven reds and beiges enveloped in a completely black background.  From here, the pieces devolve into extremely abstract expressions; an anxious look seen in the eyes of Utermohlen in early 1997 only followed by a look of defeat and acceptance later on in the year.  The year 1999 is the last time that Utermohlen uses color to draw an incoherent beige black and green portrait, a complete dismantlement of the person he used to be.                     

In the year 2000, several years after Utermohlen’s diagnosis, he reverted back to a simple pencil sketch – yet this time without even a basic understanding of shading and lighting.  The portrait lacks almost all characteristics of humanity with only a nose and the faint shadow of an ear being recognizable.  Utermohlen followed this sketch with an unfinished oval accompanied by an infinity sign, which was likely an attempt of an ear and a coffee spill nearby.  

MSA visual arts teacher Taylor Mancini described the portraits.

They create a narrative; they tell a story of the struggle of a brilliant man and artist falling deeper into an unfamiliar state of existence,” Mancini wrote.  

Though living in an unfamiliar state of existence, one aspect of Utermohlen’s life was unchanging, the love he felt for his wife Patricia.  Utermohlen painted her with the same affection and care as he did in the early 60’s.  

While doctors search tirelessly for medicines and therapies to combat the life-altering disease, it is our job to remind our family members that we love and appreciate them.  Even as many Alzheimer’s patients lose touch with reality, their love and appreciation for occasionally unfamiliar faces are unwavering.