Art and Dementia: Beyond Time, Beyond Words – The Work of Josh Dorman

by | Feb 24, 2022 | Featured Artist

“Words often fail me when I try to explain my art, and words often fail people who suffer with Alzheimer’s Disease. I think we both occupy interior worlds that don’t always match up with everyday reality.”

Josh Dorman, painter and mixed media artist, had his first exposure to dementia in 2007 when he collaborated with the Memory Bridge Foundation to travel to a Chicago nursing home to create the six large “portraits” of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. “That project was all about listening”, says Dorman.

“I was a fly on the wall. Sketching, taking notes, soaking it in as they interacted with a facilitator or a family member.  Then I would go back to the hotel to sketch/draw on top of antique maps and translate what I had experienced into portraits.”

Dorman has long been fascinated with antique collage elements – weathered ledger pages, topographical maps, old catalogs or textbook diagrams. There is no photography or photoshopped copies of things.

“I like for my collage elements to take the viewer out of the present moment. Topographical maps conjure wrinkles of course, but they also signal the passing of time and place, of erosion.” 

 These abstract ‘portraits’ contain layers of a person’s memories, their verbal communications, their responses to touch, sound and presence that Josh observed, and other symptoms of dementia. There was song, there was foul language, there were tender moments of lucidity and calm. ‘The whole gamut,’ says Dorman.

He returned to the theme of dementia-related portraiture in 2017 and the work was shown in a solo-show at the Longview Museum of Fine Arts in Texas. The new works were not based on a particular individual, and he describes the process of creating them in a truly unique way:

“The faces in these portraits are congealing but also dissolving, and I imagine that’s what the dementia state of mind might be like. When I work, I accept the images that come to me, not logically, not orderly. And I imagine that my creative process brain is not that far off from someone with dementia.”

Dorman says that a lot of what artists do is create alternate realities that may not match our standard realities — and we accept those alternate realities as beautiful. Why not accept that in dementia as well? Dorman thinks that our need to define, name, and label all things might be what makes us so frustrated when relating to loved ones who have clearly moved on to a new, alternate reality.

“I watched children interview their parents and they would cry and be so frustrated. How could they not? It affects your own sense of self when your parent doesn’t remember who you are.  But people with memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s have changed their state of mind, they are not simply ‘gone’.”

Dorman says his goal is to help families become more comfortable with communicating with their loved ones in a different way — beyond time and beyond words. In that sense, the reaction to his work has been profound.

“I think it has helped people be okay with not being able to grasp dementia fully or solve the problem. To be more okay with the shifted reality.”

The dementia work has seeped into his broader body of work as he continues to focus on portraits of people who are both there and not there at the same time. He continues to ask the question, what makes a being? What makes a face?

“For me, the most interesting stuff in art, like in life, is not totally definable. It’s more ambiguous. It might make you uncomfortable but it keeps you intrigued. That’s a clear connection between dementia and the arts themselves.”

Dorman’s next solo show will be in NYC in the fall.

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