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kevbo's avatar

Analysis of my grandma's art?

Asked by kevbo (24166 points ) March 8th, 2009

My Grandma passed away last week at 88. She lived for a number of years in a nursing home succumbing to the progress of Alzheimer’s. It was a long journey, and I’m okay with her passing.

Two years ago, she took up the art activity hour at her nursing home, and today I saw for the first time the art she produced. It’s pretty interesting and doesn’t look like anything else she’s done. Care to analyze?

I realize, by the way, that there may be nothing profound to it, but I am very curious. She stopped making art, I imagine, when her Alzheimer’s got in the way.

Some background: She was born in 1920 and was a first generation Polish-American. She grew up outside of Detroit in Algonac. Her mother divorced and remarried. She was the only child of the first marriage and had a few step-siblings. She went through the Great Depression as a kid and served as a WAC during WWII. She loved nature and the mountains and took up landscape painting in her middle age, which she pursued throughout her later adulthood. (She never did portraits.) She also crocheted and sewed clothes. She was whimsical and carefree in her emotions but practical with her material goods.

Here are lower rez images

Download a zip file of hi-rez images (expires on Mar 15, 2009—let me know if you want them after that date)

Thanks!

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18 Answers

tigran's avatar

that’s pretty interesting, looks like a child drew them.

I personally think they are doodles, maybe while looking at the people around her…

It would be nice to see some of her earlier work to compare.

Likeradar's avatar

I know basically nothing about art, but most of the people are smiling and the pictures look like they were made by someone who is pretty happy. :) I’m sorry about your grandmother’s passing.

kevbo's avatar

Thanks @tigran. I don’t have her earlier work on hand, but it’s pretty much realist landscapes, usually paintings taken from photos or done on site.

What’s intriguing about these for me (and my mom) is the level of detail in the dress and the individuality of the figures.

@Likeradar, thank you too. She was a happy Alzheimer’s patient for the most part and her attitude about her condition was very much “don’t worry, be happy.”

Jeruba's avatar

The way to prevent the bleed-through is to lay the page on a sheet of black paper before you photograph it.

bigbanana's avatar

Hey @kevbo I really like her expressiveness. I would interested to see more. I think it is in a full range of work that you can see where the artist strength is. I like her whimsey. If there is more work I would be happy to look at it and offer an opinion, my degree is in art and I am a great “authority” in my own mind anyway :).
Thanks for sharing her work and her memory.

augustlan's avatar

I like how the clothing styles and eyes seem to denote different nationalities.

kevbo's avatar

@Jeruba, ahhhh… thanks. Yeah, I just did a quick scan. Deep down I really dislike processing images, but I will surely take your advice next time.

@bigbanana, I don’t know that I have much else, but will add if I come across more.

@augustlan, thanks. Yeah, the more I look at them the more I see ethnic elements that seem Arabian, Russian and Asian.

Jeruba's avatar

Trick I picked up way back in my days of editing and preparing art work for offset printing. You can do the same thing with a scan.

LKidKyle1985's avatar

Hey you know, my family is from Toledo (kinda near Detroit by an hour) and the east side, which is a big polish area too. Anyways i think you are right, i don’t know if its Russian or Polish or what, but i can see some Slavic influence in it. Definitely interesting and it would be cool to see her earlier work too just out of curiosity. thanks for the show.

aprilsimnel's avatar

Wow, her work is a little Jungian, there. Maybe she tapped into some collective memory and put it on the page. There did seem to be something very old and mittel Europa with her drawings.

wundayatta's avatar

@Jeruba I kind of like the bleed through. Especially on #2. It looks like these giant sunflowers looking benevolently on the snow people.

# 2 looks like snow people, and they are making snowmen, but there is also this giant head, which reminds me of the Easter Island statues. Most of the characters are facing us, as they are in most of the pictures. It’s a primitivistic kind of thing, although not necessarily childlike. More like an untutored drawer.

#1 I couldn’t figure out the boxes the heads were on for a while. These are, to my mind, the sunflower people. But I decided the boxes are blankets, and these are kids sleeping, like in daycare, except maybe they are elderly in the nursing home. In any case, they creep me out. The smiles look forced, like they are pod people or something.

#3 Has a darker mood. That character on the left is evilly smiling. What’s he up to? The two in the middle are dressed in striped like prisoners, or like mummies, since there are no facial features. That may mean their backs are to us. The one further back—an attempt at perspective?—seems to be doing something to the one in front. But what? Fixing her clothes? The guy on the right is tipping to the middle, as is the guy on the left. They are all bundled up to go outside in the winter. I have no idea about the feature on the left. Stream? Tree? This is another creepy one.

#4 I think of as the Wizard of Oz people. They remind me of the drawings for that book. Kind of tin woodsmany or like the people in emerald city. Again, the uniform happiness is disturbing. I feel like these people are saying “help, let me out of here.”

#5 The main feature of note is that a woman appears to be offering food. The figures seem to be rendered in a more sophisticated way than the other pieces, so far.

#6 The figure on the left appears to be wrapped up, as if in a strait jacket. The woman in the middle has very prominently drawn breasts. The woman on the right looks like a nurse. I get the feeling of being stuck in the funny farm.

#7 shows people, trees, and houses. The people are outside and it appears to be summertime, instead of the winter seen in other drawings. The house on the left reminds me of a giant coffee maker, or as a kind of barn with a face. The house on the right is vaguely churchlike. It may indeed be meant to be a church as one of the figures to the right is on her knees, supplicating or doing some kind of penance? I get the sense that the barn with the face could be a god, and the figure to the right is asking for something. The figure behind is all colored in. Death? Could she be asking to die and go to heaven (symbolized by happy woman on left)?

#8 reminds me of a tippy toy family. Their feet are all together, and if you knock them over, they will bob back up again. The boy on the left has an evil smile, and the little girl on the right looks sad. Did your grandmother have an older brother who teased her a lot?

#9 Looks like either a family outside in winter, with an unhappy boy trailing behind, or a happy couple with an unhappy priest behind. I find the coloring in to be notable, as I do not believe it happens much in the other drawings. On the other hand, there is no background or background features.

#10 looks unfinished. The squares may be the blankets, and the circles could be the beginnings of heads. This could be another kindergarten nap time, or nursing home sleep time drawing.

#11 is kind of Boschian. Or maybe in a Dali style. Some of the creatures seem vaguely birdlike. Only two have visible legs. This could be a parade or a religious procession. Was grandma very religious?

I guess that, as Alzheimer’s progresses, people revert to an earlier phase of life, both in terms of memories and skills. Her figures mostly seemed conventionally happy, with the exception of a few sad faces and some very menacing figures. If I knew more about her childhood, I suspect this would make more sense. Knowing she is first generation with Polish background, I can see the religious stuff. That her Mother remarried, might explain the unhappiness, if the new Father already had a son. The sadness could be a reflection of the Great Depression, and the nurse figure could be her during the WWII. Did she work in an insane asylum? Did she work in a facility for shell-shocked vets?

If this does reflect her life, a sort of retrospective, I would think she lived, trying to appear happy on the outside, but inside she was not the same. I think life was hard for her, and she was grateful to be released from it. I think she felt like an outcast most of the time, and if that’s the case, then she was probably lonely.

In any case, those are some things that would help the drawings make sense to me. Obviously, this is just imagination at creating a backstory to explain the drawings. I could be totally wrong on it all. So, fwiw, that’s what I go from them.

bythebay's avatar

I love them! You are so lucky to have these drawings; I hope you’ll display them and enjoy them.

Thank you for sharing her story and her art, Kevbo.

sdeutsch's avatar

I love her drawings – I’m not much of an art analyst, but they really do seem like they were drawn with love, by someone who was happy to be creating them. They just make you smile to look at them!

I don’t know if you’d be interested, but there’s an organization called the Alzheimer’s Art Quilt Initiative that collects small art quilts to auction off, and all the proceeds go to Alzheimer’s research. If someone you know quilts, turning these drawings into small quilts for the AAQI might be a great way to commemorate your grandma – especially since you said she was interested in sewing as well as painting…

kevbo's avatar

@daloon, thanks for the in-depth commentary. You and I had some similar reactions (Easter Island, Wizard of Oz—except I saw that in #7, but I still see what you are saying). I think she had a stepsister and two stepbrothers. (I don’t think they were half-sibs, but I’m not sure.) In #9, the unhappy boy/priest you mention also seems to have holes in his chest or something going on with his chest, which I’m not sure about, but I didn’t think about colored in vs. not, so thanks for that observation. With #11, my thought was perhaps a nativity-inspired scene with Mary, Joseph, the Three Wise Men and… uh, a divining rod. Or, perhaps another Wizard of Oz. She was a lifelong Catholic, although not evangelical. It was more of a personal thing for her, but she definitely kept the Christ in Christmas.

@bythebay, thanks so much!

@sdeutsch, that’s a great idea. Thanks for the suggestion!

Jeruba's avatar

I actually liked the bleed-through too, especially in #10. I thought perhaps the dotted grids were their attending dreams floating by their heads. But since kevbo commented on the bleeds, I just shared an old solution.

kevbo's avatar

@Jeruba, that’s a good trick. I appreciate the suggestion.

wundayatta's avatar

@kevbo: this was fun. An unusual question. Thanks for sharing. I’ve never really had any training in art criticism, but I figured that wasn’t what was involved here. I could just give my own reactions, and that would be sufficient. I have a tendency to read more into things that most people do. I probably take things too far, too, since I’m not always certain where people boundaries are, and my sense of what is acceptable might be a little more honest than most people are comfortable with. Also, I might see some things that people don’t want to admit to. So I can not be sure if I’m wrong, or if I’m right but people don’t want to admit it. Anyway, it’s an interesting exercise for me.

Jeruba's avatar

I’m recalling now that when my son when he was 5 went through a long period of drawing multicolored grids with dots on them, very similar to Grandma’s here. He incorporated them as elements—almost like Legos!—into various drawings, such as rectangular grids for tables and L-shaped ones (all made up of squares with dots in them) as chairs. I never found out what they meant, and I wish I had kept more than one or two of them. Perhaps the grids stood for a kind of order or manageability. I can imagine that drawing them would give a very satisfying sense of completeness. (I also wondered if Grandma’s were buttons.)

He grew up to study graphic arts before he turned to law and is a very competent sketch artist, typographic designer, and graphic designer.

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