Artwork by Lester Potts
Artwork by Lester Potts

This is the story of Lester Potts, a man living with dementia who through an engaging art teacher realizes a gift for painting even though he had NEVER before picked up a paint brush in his life.

So much of our thinking and actions during a typical day as caregivers of persons with dementia invariably gravitates to compensating for deficits.  We look for eroding skill sets and abilities in our loved ones like sailors search the sky for hints as to what the weather might bring us next.  We scrutinize the familiar face that has become our horizon for any clues as to what the ever changing winds of dementia might bring in on the next wave so that we might better prepare to help our loved ones and ourselves “get through” each new challenge without the risk of capsizing under the weight of uncertainty that often accompanies an ever changing future.  We constantly adjust the sails that are the approach we use with our loved ones in order to best maneuver around what they can no longer do.

What we don’t do, what we don’t let ourselves do often enough is reflect on what skill sets and abilities remain  intact despite dementia.  What I can almost guarantee is that we rarely consider that persons with dementia (including Alzheimer’s) can access and develop new abilities never before identified prior to the onset of the disease.

How often do we look for that which we have never seen?  For instance, a remarkable remarkable and never before demonstrated artistic acumen that revealed itself only after living with dementia? This was the first lesson Lester Potts taught us, but it wouldn’t be his last.

Who is Lester Potts?

Lester E. Potts Jr. was born in 1928 in Mississippi in a logging camp, a place and vocation that would remain a lifelong source of comfort and sustenance even in the hardest times.  At age 2, he and his family moved back to a home in Pickens County, Alabama. As a young man, he learned well the work ethic required of those witnesses to the Great Depression through laboring in a saw mill. “He served his country in the Korean War. And after the war, he labored as a saw miller in rural Alabama. He never painted a picture in his life,” notes Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN and the artist’s only child.

Dementia Art TherapyDr. Potts further recalls that his dad was “diagnosed in his early 70’s with Alzheimer’s disease.  Lester experienced a growing depression as he began to lose memory, language and dexterity. When an opening became available, he enrolled as a client at Caring Days Adult Dementia Daycare Center (The Mal and Charlotte Moore Center) in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  Alzheimer’s caused damage most notably to the parts of his brain associated with memory and language ability. A kind volunteer artist named George Parker helped Lester to begin painting watercolors, and over a four year period until his death, he painted over 100 of them.”

“At first, his teacher would show him pictures to get him started. However, toward the middle and end of his painting career, most of what Lester painted was from his mind alone,” Dr. Potts recalled.  “All of the images that he painted during the more advanced stages of Alzheimer’s were pictures created in his mind and imagination, and from his earlier life experiences. He had almost no speech, but in his silence, he listened with his heart and was very attentive.”  

How often do we look for that which we have never seen?   The fact that Lester had never expressed himself through art prior to the onset of Alzheimer’s thankfully didn’t stop George Parker from giving Lester the opportunity to try.  It is a powerful idea that persons with dementia (including Alzheimer’s) can access and develop new abilities never before identified prior to the onset of the disease.  It is a hopeful and inspirational thought that there may be undiscovered yet still accessible parts of our loved one’s personhood that await the opportunity to be revealed.  This idea was such an impactful and innovative example of the miraculous possibilities for persons living with dementia that Lester’s art was the inspiration behind starting the non-profit foundation Cognitive Dynamics whose mission is “To improve the quality of life of persons with cognitive disorders (such as Alzheimer’s disease) and their caregivers through education, research, and support of innovative care models which promote human dignity, especially therapies employing the expressive arts and storytelling.”

The Broken Jar and Seasons of Caring

Dr. Potts would later compile a collection of his father’s art work and combine it with his own poetry in a beautiful volume entitled The Broken Jar with all proceeds from the book going to benefit Caring Days Adult Dementia Daycare Center (the very program where Lester realized his joy of painting). Lester’s art was also featured in Seasons of Caring: Meditations for Alzheimer’s and Dementia Caregivers, a first of its kind, interfaith volume of more than 140 original meditations from 70 religious leaders and care specialists – many caregivers themselves – representing 17 faith traditions with all proceeds benefiting the ClergyAgainstAlzhemer’s Network and its efforts to support families and stop Alzheimer’s.

Artwork by Lester Potts
Artwork by Lester Potts

Lester Potts’ artwork has continued helping people to think differently about persons with dementia and what they are capable of long after his passing in 2007.  I think Lester’s story and the way his son, Dr. Potts has helped share it have done much to advance the recognition of Art Therapy as a way of maintaining personhood and encouraging self-expression for those with dementia.

We hear so much these days in the news, on social media and in many caregiver books about Art Therapy that we might be pretty sure we know what this means.  What may come to mind when we think of Art Therapy for persons living with dementia may be activities such as painting, adult themed coloring books that encourage the more dignified use of pencils versus crayons, cutting out magazine images to make collages and in general anything related to creative expression, right?  

The American Art Therapy Association (AATA), is a national professional association of over 5,000 practicing art therapy professionals, including students, educators, and related practitioners in the field.  The AATA defines Art Therapy as “a mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the art therapist, use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem. A goal in art therapy is to improve or restore a client’s functioning and his or her sense of personal well-being. Art therapy practice requires knowledge of visual art (drawing, painting, sculpture, and other art forms) and the creative process, as well as of human development, psychological, and counseling theories and techniques.”

Lester’s art truly helped bring this type of therapy to many persons living with dementia that may not previously have been considered capable of participating in this type of activity.  That in itself was a huge gift he gave to others impacted by the same illness.  

But it didn’t stop there; here’s where something altogether surprising and unexpected in the most joyful of ways happened. Lester had a second lesson in store for us that was about to be discovered.

Treasure for Alzheimer’s

“Dr. Potts sent Dr. Richard Morgan a portfolio of his father’s artwork created after the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. The art is arranged chronologically, and all of it was produced at Caring Days from about 2002 through 2005. Prior to receiving this gift, Dr. Morgan had begun showing Lester’s artwork from Seasons of Caring: Meditations for Alzheimer’s and Dementia Caregivers to residents in the Memory Care Unit at Redstone Highlands, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.” – excerpt from TREASURE FOR ALZHEIMER’S – Reflecting on experiences with the art of Lester E. Potts, Jr.

Treasure for Alzheimer'sCo-authored by Richard L. Morgan, PhD and Daniel C. Potts, MD, FAAN, TREASURE FOR ALZHEIMER’S contains an exciting array of anecdotal case studies demonstrating the impact Lester Potts’ artwork has as a therapeutic activity with those experiencing dementia (including Alzheimer’s) at each stage in the disease process and from a variety of different socio-economic backgrounds. Dr. Morgan “marveled at how Lester’s art touched places buried deep inside, and caused the residents to smile, and at times, to speak. He wanted to explore this further after receiving a full portfolio of Lester’s work to share.”

Dr. Potts noted that “This may be the first time that the art of a lay person with Alzheimer’s has been used therapeutically with people who also have the disease or dementia of other causes.”   

Connecting through Creating and Sharing Art

What if the second lesson Lester Potts’ legacy was as important as his first?  What if Lester is teaching us that in addition to creating art we can enhance self-expression through the sharing of art between persons impacted by dementia (including Alzheimer’s)?   What if there existed a type of artistic shorthand more readily recognizable to persons living with the same type of cognitive deficits?  Stripped of any desire to impress, or have commercial worth, or be imbued with layers of nuanced complexity that may hinder artists through the ages that desired relevance and immortality?   What if persons with dementia communicate more effectively with each other through sharing their own art with each other – which at its core is about their personhood, their feelings and their self-expression in its purest and most unadulterated form?

Free from fear of judgment and without the need to be defined by others it is art as expression in is truest and most comprehensible form.  What if Lester taught us that not only are persons living with dementia still very capable of participating in new forms of self-expression, such as art, but that to have a meaningful art therapy program it should also include the sharing of these works between persons living with dementia?  What if art work created by persons with dementia was more relatable, more accessible to other persons living with dementia than more noted or famous types of art throughout the ages?  What if the “Rosetta Stone” of reaching persons with dementia was there all along – what if it was all about making space for these unique and creative and capable persons to access and share all of the parts of their humanity that still most certainly yearn for the recognition of self and the connection with others?

Dr. Potts has written, “Through the process of art therapy, relationships are built, empathy fostered, and anxiety lessened. It’s a matter of persons with Alzheimer’s discovering new ways of expressing themselves and communicating their life stories to others.” As demonstrated in the video below, Potts’ beautiful watercolors have done and still do exactly that.

To learn more about using art therapy with your loved one, visit Cognitive Dynamics.

3 Comments

  1. Nancy Armitage

    As the coordinator of the Memories in the Making art program, I have seen the tremendous and often miraculous benefits of the artwork done by our participants living with dementia. Your article so sums up my feelings, and those of the many facilitators that participate. I call it the ripple in the pool – first the individual living with Alzheimer’s has a unique opportunity to create something beautiful. We also engage the in a memory that goes hand in hand with the painting. Then the families take joy in seeing their loved one create and engage. The artwork becomes their legacy. And exhibiting this artwork in the community is my greatest joy because it is there that others see what those with dementia have created and it both creates a bridge into their lives and knocks down the walls of fear.

    • Kristin Angulo

      Nancy,
      Thank you, and I couldn’t agree more. The benefits of Art truly do create a “ripple in pool” as you mentioned. Thank you for taking the time to read this article, I am happy to hear about your experiences 🙂

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