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Artist paints his struggle with Alzheimer's

/ Source: The Associated Press

In a series of self-portraits he painted to document the progressive ravaging of his brain by Alzheimer's disease, William Utermohlen disappears before our eyes — and his own.

The works shortly after his diagnosis convey terror and isolation. Those feelings later give way to defiance and anger. Then shame, confusion and anguish. Then, in the shadowy final pair of portraits, little more than afterimages of a creative and talented spirit whose identity appears to have vanished.

The Philadelphia native, whose richly detailed figurative paintings have been shown and sold at galleries in New York and throughout Europe, undertook a series of self-portraits at the onset of his diagnosis. More than a dozen of the portraits are on display through April 30 at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, to commemorate Utermohlen's life and the centenary of Dr. Alois Alzheimer's 1906 discovery of the disease.

"It's so important that these be seen," said Dr. Rhonda L. Soricelli, chair of the college's division of medicine and the arts. "It's important for families, for physicians, and for the public, because of the huge amount of fear in our society about Alzheimer's disease."

Utermohlen, 73, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1995. From then until 2000, when he lost his lifelong ability to paint and draw, he rendered himself in oils and pencil and his doctors studied how and when certain abilities were lost.

The huge oil on canvas "Blue Skies" (1994-95) shows the artist sitting at a table, gripping the edge as if to avoid being sucked out of a gaping skylight above his head.

In "Self Portrait I" (1996), Utermohlen stares himself down with both anger and fear, painted in riotous yellow and orange, his chin jutting forward but his eyes trying to hide their panic. A pencil rendering from that year shows his loss of spacial awareness as he tries to draw a human figure for his doctors but can't figure out the proper placement of the arms and legs.

As the months and years progress, the paintings take on a primitive style, though Utermohlen told his doctors that it was not his intention to do so.

In his last attempt with a paintbrush, in what has been titled "Erased Self Portrait" (1999-2000), Utermohlen tried over and over again to recreate his likeness. The small canvas shows the rudimentary shape of a head, and blurs of paint where the features should be.

"It's really a metaphor for what's going on in his brain," Soricelli said. "It's just heartbreaking to look at."

Desire to create

Alzheimer's disease eventually robbed Utermohlen of his ability to communicate and he now lives in a London nursing home. But his desire to chronicle his illness in visual terms has proven valuable to researchers, said Dr. Anjan Chatterjee of the University of Pennsylvania, who studies the effects of brain damage on visual artists' output.

Instead of simplistic left-brain vs. right-brain ideas about where creativity exists, "when people produce art they're really using very different parts of their brain and the different components work together in final product," he said.

In a 2001 study in British medical journal The Lancet, researchers said Utermohlen knew that his renderings were spatially inaccurate but he did not know how to fix them. They were heartened that Alzheimer's did not dampen Utermohlen's desire to create — despite destroying his lifelong artistic skills.

"It tells us something about the creative process ... how people in compromised circumstances can continue to produce art even when other conduits are blocked," Chatterjee said.

Born and raised in South Philadelphia, Utermohlen trained at the city's Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. His schooling was interrupted by two years in the Army and he graduated from PAFA in 1957. He went to Europe on the GI bill that year before enrolling at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford, England.

Except for a brief teaching stint in the 1970s at Amherst College, Utermohlen has lived in London since 1962 — the year he married his wife, art historian Patricia Utermohlen. His work has not been shown in his hometown since his school days, when his friends knew him as Willie.

"He developed to such a degree, he just grew and he just got better and better," said Daniel Miller, chair of graduate programs at PAFA who trained alongside Utermohlen. "The tragedy of having that removed from you is so horrendous."