I Remember Better When I Paint

Tue Mar 22, 2011 7:16am EDT

The American painter Hilda Goldblatt Gorenstein (1905-1998), who signed her work "Hilgos," always was a trailblazer. As a young woman in the 1930s, she boldly ventured into perhaps the most male-dominated artistic genre imaginable -- marine paintings of ships -- and excelled at it. Her most renowned work is an enormous mural depicting the history of the U.S. Navy, which she was commissioned to create for the Century of Progress celebration in Chicago in 1933.

But Gorenstein has become even more famous and influential for the art that she did in the last years of her life, when she was struggling with the ravages of Alzheimer's disease. Her remarkable resurgence as an artist inspired a 2009 documentary about the regenerative power of creativity, I Remember Better When I Paint, which is on a screening tour of art museums around the nation. Here's the documentary's official blog, which provides announcements of upcoming showings and the trailer.

The painter's personal transformation, depicted in the documentary, is a fascinating and uplifting one. Gorenstein was a nursing home patient in Chicago in the mid-1990s and was so deeply withdrawn and agitated that her psychiatrist put her on a tranquillizer. Then, one day, her daughter, Berna Huebner, asked Gorenstein if she would like to try painting again. "I remember better when I paint," was her response.

Huebner hired students from the Art Institute of Chicago, where Gorenstein had studied painting in the 1920s, to work with her mother. Though some staffers at the nursing home were dubious about the experiment -- "You're wasting your time," one of them told Gorenstein's student-therapist, Jenny Sheppard -- the effort led to a startling breakthrough. Over a three-year period, the once marginally communicative woman produced hundreds of watercolor paintings. Some of them evoked her trademark representational style and nautical themes, but others seemed to venture into a new, more abstract, even mysterious artistic and psychological territory. After completing one of her paintings, a series of cascading, bent, brightly colored shapes, she entitled it "The Hidden Hour." (You can see that painting and other examples of her work in a slideshow that accompanies this 2010 article from Miller-McCune magazine.)

As journalist Gail Sheehy recounts in her book Passages in Caregiving: Turning Chaos Into Confidence, toward the end of Gorenstein's life, the artist was able to summon up enough presence of mind to dictate a note to her two children, saying that she had enjoyed a long and wonderful life, and that she would be pleased if her example would be useful to the medical world.

And indeed, it has. Gorenstein's example provided impetus to a new way of thinking about aging advocated by geriatric psychiatrist Gene D. Cohen. The pioneering researcher, who died in 2009, argued that researchers should spend less time looking at aging as a problem or an array of diseases, and think more about how to help aging people achieve their optimum potential in life, whatever it might be. Cohen saw artistic self-expression, one of the most primal and resilient characteristics of being human, as a potent sort of alternative medicine against the physical and mental ravages that may afflict us as we grow older.

As Cohen explained in this 2006 article (PDF) in the gerontological journal Generations, there's growing evidence that creating art actually alters the brain in ways that help preserve function as people age and also enable elderly intellects to continue to grow and adapt. An aging artist's brain will form new synapses, the links between cells that enable us to put bits of information together and form new ideas. In addition, Cohen said, painting, drawing or sculpting -- and other artistic activities, as well -- helps maintain and develop right-left brain integration. That integration, in turn, enables a person's brain to recruit different areas and redirect them to perform new functions.

Other recent studies show that making art also has a beneficial emotional effect, significantly reducing anxiety in adult cancer patients and children with pediatric asthma. It's logical to infer that it probably benefits the rest of us in the same way -- even if we aren't battling Alzheimer's.

If you're looking for more information on this subject, here's a 2005 book by artist-therapist Ruth Abraham, When Words Have Lost Their Meaning. Here also is "Hilda: A Jewel Distilled," a fascinating 2010 essay by Robin Barcus Slonina, one of the young artists who worked with Gorenstein.

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