Alzheimer’s Disease is sometimes called The Long Goodbye, a gradual loss of memory, self, and eventually, life. When artist William Utermohlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s he began to make a series of self-portraits that would continue for five years. Looking at the pictures in chronological order is looking at a life diminished by degrees. As his technical skill ebbed, so did Utermohlen’s apparent sense of self. Still, the urge to create persisted.
In an essay about the self-portraits, Utermohlen’s wife, Pat, wrote:
“In these pictures we see with heart-breaking intensity William’s efforts to explain his altered self, his fears and his sadness. The great talent remains, but the method changes. He sometimes uses water-colour and paints a series of masks, perhaps because he could more quickly express his fear. In both the oils and water-colours these marvellous self portraits express his desperate attempt to understand his condition. There is a new freedom of expression, the paint is applied more thickly, art-historically speaking the artist seems less linear and classical, more expressionist, and I see ghosts of his German heritage.”
Worldwide, nearly 36 million people have Alzheimer’s or a related dementia—almost everyone will be touched by Alzheimer’s in some way during their lifetimes. Although Pat Utermohlen told the New York Times, “It’s so strange to be known for something you’re doing when you’re rather ill,” it was also a testament to William Utermolen’s ability as an artist that he was able to transcend his own experience, even unknowingly, and create work that was at once profound, heart-breaking, and universal.