SPRINGVALE — For the longest time, Pamala Crabb had little interest in showing her multimedia abstract encaustic and acrylic paintings about her father’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease.
The subject was just too personal.
She felt better about opening up after a well-received show in a Rochester, N.H., frame shop, where visitors overwhelmed her with thanks for exploring the difficult subject. The response led Crabb to reconsider her reluctance to publicly address her family’s private journey.
“Doing this work has helped me deal with everything related to my dad, and accept him for who he is now. If I can help other people too, then maybe this is what I’m supposed to doing here,” said Crabb, who lives in Springvale and shows a range of work at galleries in Maine and around New England.
Emboldened with the knowledge that her work helps others with similar grief, loss and confusion, she will show more than two dozen works in November at a new southern Maine gallery, Whitney Galleries in Wells.
“Alzheimer Forgets” opens Nov. 7 and continues through Nov. 27. At 1 p.m. Nov. 16, a doctor who specializes in neurological disease and a caregiver will talk about the disease and how families cope.
Ansel Crabb, now 77, has been showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s for about a decade. His daughter first noticed his forgetfulness when he couldn’t remember the stories that he told for decades. Now, he doesn’t recognize Pamala at all, and refers to her as “the one from Maine.”
A Houlton native, he moved to Connecticut to make his living as a “steel monkey,” his daughter said. He helped build many of the high-rises around Hartford, and also worked on the Alaska pipeline. “He worked hard all his life,” Pamala Crabb said. Soon after he retired, symptoms of the disease began showing themselves, and it’s been a steady decline since.
He lives at home, with his wife, who provides his daily care.
Crabb decided to make art about her father and his disease the day he no longer recognized her. She returned home from her visit, distraught that she and her father were disappearing from one another, and wrote a poem about her experience. She called it “Alzheimer’s Forgets.”
“Slipping Away into the deep forest
Each tree passed less remembered
Till the last leg of the journey when in the clearing
I stand alone surrounded by nothingness
Am I even here?
The coldness – the alienation
The tears – the realization
The complete disappearance – The awareness of the missing
Everybody is nobody
Where have you gone?
My father has Alzheimer’s disease. Today my father did not remember me.
I felt invisible. All that connected me with my Dad was done. I was gone. I did not exist. Dad did not exist.
Was it ever there to begin?”
Her abstract art work, which mostly hangs on the walls, conjures a feeling of walking through a birch forest. She makes large panels layered with wax and paint. The forest’s light trees are darkened by shadows, which creep ever closer to the clearing until they engulf them completely.
“By the time you finish walking through, you’re not sure where you are. The trees are disturbed, they’re upside down, they’re confused,” Crabb said.
She’s been working on the series several years, and plans to continue it as the disease runs its course. “The more he regresses into nothingness, the more disturbing the series becomes,” she said.
Crabb has lived in Maine for decade. She’s married to military husband, who worked in Italy before being transferred to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery.
She has shown across Maine, and is part of a group show, “Material Matters,” on view Nov. 1-30 at the Lewis Gallery at the Portland Public Library. In 2009, she was included in the group exhibition “Heat Stroke” at the Saco Museum, featuring artists working in wax.
Her work is not widely known, but this series should help establish her name, said Richard Whitney, who owns the gallery in Wells where Crabb will show this work in November. He calls her “one of Maine’s unknown jewels.
“I think she’s a really courageous artist,” he said. “It’s not easy to do this kind of work, but she’s done it remarkably well. She has replicated the journey that she is experiencing with her dad in her art. She presents the perceptions of an Alzheimer’s patient as they progress through the disease. She gives us an idea of how they perceive the world, using the forest as a metaphor.”
Encaustic is an agreeable media for this work, because of the build-up of layers of wax. As each layer is revealed, we get different textures, different colors, different shapes and forms.
The layers suggest distortion, blurred perceptions and a thick haze, Whitney said.
“By the end of the show, you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at. You’re not sure it’s a forest anymore, or exactly what it is. I think it’s a very poignant statement.” he said.
Crabb had be convinced to show this work a year ago in Rochester, N.H. Ross Bachelder, who manages the Ben Franklin Crafts store in Rochester, urged her to put up some of her work in the store’s gallery space, if for no other reason than to gauge reaction.
Crabb did so, quietly. She did not call attention to the work, did not schedule a reception and did not seek publicity. But she set out a notebook for people to leave their impressions, People wrote moving and emotional comments, leading Crabb to tears and to the realization that her art was helping others coping with similar circumstances.
“There were a lot of people in tears looking at this show,” Bachelder said.
Crabb is more comfortable exhibiting this body of work now. She is eager for the panel discussion, and happy to participate in a community discourse.
But that does not mean it will be easy.
“Oh, no,” she said, her eyes welling. “It’s going to be hard. People are going to want to talk, and I’m going to just try to not get too emotional. But it’s hard.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:
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