The elderly woman on the sofa looks out from the canvas of the painting, composed and well-groomed. She’s dressed in white slacks and a white button-down blouse, a white wool sweater draped cozily over her shoulders. Her hands folded in her lap, she gazes steadily back at the viewer with an inviting half-smile. A potted plant lends a bit of color to the canvas, and a bit of shadow, too.
It’s a classic, reassuring portrait of dignified old age — except for the mad bomber hat she wears incongruously, obliviously on her head, its long, rabbit-fur chin flaps and huge brim framing her sweetly creased and wrinkled face.
This is Elaine Bard, the 89-year-old grandmother of New York artist Jason Bard Yarmosky, whose solo show, entitled “Somewhere,” opens May 19th at the University of Maine Museum of Art on Harlow Street in Bangor. The show, developed in partnership with the St. Joseph Healthcare Foundation and the University of Maine Center on Aging, will hang through September 2, serving as the focus and catalyst for a summer series of free noontime talks and workshops aimed at educating family caregivers and others in the community about age-related dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and the role of art in a healing environment.
The 29-year-old Yarmosky, who paints in a detailed, hyper-realistic style, has been painting his grandparents — with, he says, their cheerful cooperation — for several years. Even after his grandmother developed signs of dementia in 2013 and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she insisted he continue.
“I wasn’t sure if I should continue to work with her,” Yarmosky said in a recent conversation. “But then she told me very clearly that she felt left out, excluded, and that I could continue painting her for the rest of her life.”
The 2015 bomber-hat portrait of Elaine Bard, which hangs in the lobby outside the main gallery, is the least unsettling image in this new show. Walk through the glass doors and and you’ll see her again, larger than life, her wrinkled old flesh barely encased in a tattered, star-spangled Wonder Woman bathing suit, a cold landscape of snow-covered fields and winter trees stretching away behind her. Her red-painted fingernails are perfectly manicured in this otherwise gray-scale triptych, her face a cloudy mask of puzzlement.
Other paintings and drawings in the show depict her in dreamy, even surreal scenes — in her nightgown and fuzzy slippers, wearing a unicorn head, wearing a bright pink wig, wearing a queen’s crown, looking puzzled and disconnected as she navigates a world that is at once familiar and utterly strange.
At the same time, there is a kindly playfulness to these images that seems to reflect her innate good humor and dignity, as well as the artist’s abiding affection.
“I have always been very close to my grandparents. I seem to gravitate to aging people,” Yarmosky, 29, said. “What’s happening to my grandmother is happening to so many people now. Sometimes she is just lost, and other times she is still so clear. Of course, she’s still in there.”
While these intimate images will make many viewers feel uncomfortably voyeuristic, he said, his goal is to penetrate to a deeper level of human empathy and compassion, to invite the viewer to experience and consider the disorienting realities of aging and dementia.
The “Somewhere” exhibit also includes a short looping video of Elaine Bard and a grouping of Yarmosky’s childhood drawings.
To Yarmosky, it seems clear that there is a different, larger dimension waiting after life is over. People with Alzheimer’s “seem like their time is up,” he said. “And yet they’re still here, waiting.”
For George Kinghorn, director of the University of Maine Museum of Art, Yarmosky’s show provides an important opportunity to further the museum’s academic mission. In addition to exposing museum-goers to important new artists and contemporary ideas about the creative process, he said, UMMA is charged with using the lens of art to examine social issues.
“Anytime an exhibit can be a springboard for community engagement and bring in an audience who might not otherwise find their way into the museum, that’s a good thing,” he said.
After encountering Yarmosky’s meticulously rendered paintings of his grandparents two years ago at a gallery in Chelsea, Kinghorn approached the artist about developing a solo show on the topic of aging and dementia. The result is “Somewhere,” with immediately relatable imagery that is both disturbing and inviting, guiding viewers in the direction of loss, humor and compassion without dictating their interpretation.
The series of public talks and workshops, he said, will serve both as an opportunity to provide practical information and support to people who are affected by Alzheimer’s and as a platform for understanding the power of the art in the show.
At the St. Joseph Healthcare Foundation, Executive Director for Philanthropy Susan Bernier said the partnership with UMMA reflects an ongoing commitment to incorporating the creative arts into the healing environment.
“Plenty of studies show the presence of art aids in healing, recovery and peace of mind,” Bernier said. Music and poetry are well recognized for their ability to call up old memories and associations, she noted, but the visual arts can also reach deep into memory and association.
The foundation has supported the development of an art gallery at St. Joe’s satellite campus at 900 Broadway, while an “art cart” at the 84-bed hospital allows patients and family members to select the artwork that appeals to them for their rooms.
The “Somewhere” project is the foundation’s first educational foray into the broader community, Bernier said, and responds to Maine’s aging demographic and the rising incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.
The UMMA summer exhibition opens to the public on Friday, May 19. Public programming related to the Yarmosky show kicks off on Thursday, May 25 from 6 to 8 p.m. with a panel discussion entitled, “Alzheimer’s Disease: Creating a better life through art.” Panelists include psychiatrist Dr. Cliff Singer of The Acadia Hospital, nurse practitioner Miki MacDonald of St. Joseph Healthcare and Laurie Trenholm, executive director of the Maine chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.
Free noontime talks on related subjects are scheduled at the museum for June 15, June 29, July 20 and August 17, including Jason Yarmosky’s presentation, “Thoughts on the Somewhere Exhibition,” on June 29. Free 4-hour workshops on Saturday, June 17 and Saturday, June 24 will show attendees how to assemble a “busy quilt” lap blanket for people living with Alzheimer’s.
In addition to Yarmosky’s “Somewhere” show, the 2017 summer exhibit at UMMA features photographer Susan Barnett’s show, “I Wear What I Want” and porcelain artist Lee Cummings’ installation, “What Lies Beneath.”
Free admission to the museum and all activities in 2017 is courtesy of Deighan Wealth Advisors in Bangor.