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Memory, spirit stay alive on canvas in Alzheimer's art show

Monday, November 16, 1998

By Rebecca Sodergren, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Helen Muto didn't pick up a paintbrush until she was 56 years old, but that didn't stop her from creating nearly 400 works of art.

What finally did stop her, at age 85, was Alzheimer's disease.

Works by Muto and other Alzheimer's patients will be displayed in "The Art of Alzheimer's," an art show in conjunction with the Alzheimer's Association's Greater Pittsburgh Chapter's 10th anniversary breakfast at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow at the Hilton, Downtown.

The show was organized in part by Susan Muto, Helen's daughter.

"We want this display to make people aware that there's a spirit in these people that will never die," despite the toll the disease takes, she said.

Susan vividly recalls the beginning of her mother's artistic career. In fact, she helped to start it.

Helen had spent most of her life raising her children - Susan, Frank and Victor - and working for her husband Frank's contracting business. As the children grew older, Susan's mother often said, "I wish I could do something - draw, paint ..."

Susan, who knew nothing about art, went to an art supply store and asked a salesman to help her choose supplies.

Her mother "seemed to know what to do with them" and set up a studio in the basement. Her first painting depicted her husband's favorite fishing spot. From there, she went on to create nearly 400 oils, acrylics, watercolors, charcoal drawings and more. She gave most of the works away, including many to Susan.

"I have wall-to-wall Muto, and I love it," she said.

Helen's triumphant moment was when Port Authority Transit displayed her painting of Fallingwater in its Downtown office window for several months to advertise a trip to the historic house.

But in 1995, when Helen was 85, Susan began to see changes.

"The signs [of Alzheimer's] are so crystal-clear to me now," but she didn't recognize them then. "The stove was left on, strange things were in the icebox, friends would pick her up at Foodland and say she didn't seem to remember how to get home."

Helen's painting changed, too. Before that, she had painted realistic works in soft colors. But one day, Susan visited and found her mother using globby paints that had had their lids left off, furiously pounding bright colors onto a canvas in an abstract design.

During the next three months, Helen moved to different assisted-living situations before tests at Mercy Hospital revealed Alzheimer's.

She moved to Presbyterian Senior Care in Oakmont, where she could receive care specifically geared toward Alzheimer's patients.

The staff there knew about her artistic ability and took her to a lot of art activities. One day, she and Susan worked together on a drawing of a parrot, using colored pencils. "She turned this parrot into a work of art," Susan said.

But when the drawing was done, "she had one of those grand moments of lucidity that caregivers wait for, when you can see the person again" in spite of the disease.

"She said, 'Don't make me do this anymore.' "

Surprised, Susan asked, "Why?"

"It can't go from my mind to my fingers anymore," her mother answered.

But Susan didn't want her mother to forget her painting entirely, so she has spent the past couple of years creating a "memory album" filled with photos of Helen's artwork, which sits on Helen's bedside table. Helen had given away most of the works, but she'd left a scrawled notebook listing the works and who had them. Susan called all the owners and asked for photographs of them. She got some back and re-framed them.

Now, at age 88, Helen can't talk and can't walk without help. Her recognition of her daughter is fleeting. But one of her own paintings, a sunflower design, hangs on her wall and seems to be a focal point for her.

Six of Helen's paintings will be displayed tomorrow, along with embroidery, sculpture and other works by Pittsburgh-area Alzheimer's patients Frances Denver, Mary Diccicco, Mary Matessa, Howard Milius, Mark Paulson, Kay Peters, Sister Clement Marie Nemeth, Agnes "Arnie" Peternel, Anne Sax, Lindsey Stewart, Julia Rogers and Dorothy Wolken. Works by Isabelle Mook, who is now deceased, will also be displayed, along with works by Annette Zacks, whose mother died of Alzheimer's.

Also at the breakfast, speakers, including Susan Muto, will discuss the disease; letters from Nancy Reagan and Arlen Specter will be read; and volunteers will be honored. Shelley Fabares, a star of the television series, "Coach," whose mother had Alzheimer's, will serve as host.

Susan hopes the show will inspire those who see it. "We want people to see that Alzheimer's doesn't have to be all doom and gloom. We're celebrating the spirit of these people. Their lives have made a contribution to their families, if not to their communities and the world."

For further information, call the Alzheimer's Association's Pittsburgh chapter at 412-261-5040.

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