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Portraits from the Mind

Alzheimer's disease affects nearly 5.2 million people in the United States. Even though many advances have been made in treatment the cure remains illusive. One of the most difficult aspects of the disease is watching someone you love slowly deteriorate. A poignant exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center tracts the progression of the disease through the works of artist and patient William Utermohlen.

It's two days before the exhibit opens, but it doesn't feel like the normal hustle and bustle. Curators seem to spend private contemplative moments with each painting they hang. One piece entitled Self Portrait shows artist as a teenager, thin and vulnerable, wearing cuffed jeans and a white t shirt. His wife Particia Utermohlen says he was 24 at the time. He's painted himself as he wished to be.

UTERMOHLEN: One of the things that's interesting about William is that he was academically trained. This is very important when we discuss the pictures because we can understand that he knows utterly how a body is put together.

Curator Christopher Boycos is still hanging the exhibit when I arrive. He says the self portraits are crucial to understanding all periods of the artist's life.

BOYCOS: There's a sense of psychological penetration. Of keenly observing oneself or looking that is a running theme from the early into the late works and actually brings them together.

The exhibit is part of the week long Alzheimer's conference held in Chicago sponsored by the Alzheimer's Association. Director Maria Carrillo says the signs of the disease appear slowly.

CARRILLO: The first things that change are the ability to locate and isolate facial features into the same format has they had been previously.

Utermohlen was diagnosed with the Alzheimers in 1995. Looking at his early portraits his eyes demand your attention. They seem to absorb the sunlight coming through the windows. Mrs. Utermohlen points to a number of paintings entitled The Conversations. She is seated at a table chatting with friends. The room seems off kilter in each of the pieces.

UTERMOHLEN: The physiatrist thinks that he sees images of the disease which I don't personally see, in terms if the shifting quality of perspectivel space in these pictures. This is nothing to do with him being ill or not being ill. It's a formal decision. It makes the picture better.

Mrs. Utermohlen is an art historian and realizes objectivity is impossible when it comes to her husbands work. Christopher was her student when The Conversation series was painted. He befriended his teacher and her husband and has an intimate knowledge of the work.

BOYCUS: Though all are formal, those formal decisions are taken in order to meet his new sensations and perceptions. And indeed even after the diagnosis the decisions go on being formal.

UTERMOHLEN: Now this is where you do begin to see his own decision that he knows he's not well.

The painting is entitled Snow. It's as if someone grabbed the roof and pulled the room apart to lay it flat on the canvas. The interior occupies the center of the painting, the wintery exterior its borders. Mrs. Utermohlen in the forefront is again at a table with several friends, including Christopher.

UTERMOHLEN: There is a mirror over the fireplace and that is a friend of his who has died. Bill is now saying, 'I'm no longer with you.'

Utermohlen continues to paint after his diagnosis. No longer able to work on large scale pieces, he focuses on small self portraits.

BOYCUS: He had trouble seeing where my head was in space. And I think in the late portraits what he does is he frames his own face in the mirror as a way of actually capturing it and keeping it there, rather than situating it in deep space. By so doing however he also explores what's inside his head.

UTERMOHLEN: What these pictures tell us is the agony of the soul when they realize they can't do anything about it.

Looking at his last self portraits, I see the intensity slowly fade from his eyes. It's like watching light leave the room as a candle burns out.

BOYCUS: I think that as he loses perhaps the use of his senses, that is smell and speech and hearing, after a while he paints out the particular instruments that are related to the senses so that in the last head, interestingly the eyes are the only sense that is still prominent.

CARRILLO: We know that people that have this disease and suffer from it lose their sense of self. That's the most tragic aspect of it because it not only affects the person but everyone around them.

William Utermohlen succumbed to the disease in March of 2007. Christopher, Maria Mrs. Utermohlen and I stand silently in the center of the room surrounded by his work.

UTERMOHLEN: If I'm very careful I don't cry. But I have to be careful. It is terribly sad particularly when you realize he was such a nice man, and I can't allow myself to think that because then I get to emotional and I can't talk about it.

I look around to see the ten other people in the room, trying very hard to be careful.

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