Lessons of Empathy

Tales of dementia and caregiving woven for us by fiber artist Ann Clarke
Ann Clarke standing next to rugs hung on gallery wall

Ann Clarke’s life was filled with big feelings when her mother, who was living and struggling with Alzheimer’s disease, moved near her home in New York so Ann could take on a bigger role as her caregiver.

“OK, this feels big,” Ann says, “so I’m going to make big work.”   

Ann quickly learned she needed to surrender to her mother’s reality, and not correct her all the time.  “I had to learn to accept my mother’s reality,” she says.  “To receive it without judgment, and not correct her, and have a conversation as best I could within the space as she defined it.”

Ann worked through those feelings by creating art.  A textile artist, Ann created several rugs over the course of eight years made of luxurious materials that beckon the viewer to touch and feel, or even use at home.  One piece, Love and Loathe, measures nearly 13 feet long!

Ann started taking photos and videos and ultimately scaled up her previous work pallet to create these large textile pieces. Assembled on knitting machines, the rugs are put together in panels which are then knit together to portray the images; many are of hands and eyes and other personal physical characteristics. One, Arrival, depicts an image of her mother’s hand next to a fork.

“With my mother, the biggest problem was me, that I was not giving space,” Ann says. “It became about developing empathy for my mother: I hear you, I see you, and how powerful that is.”  

Girls T Day (2017) – Photo Credit: Anne Clarke

Part of the bigness of the work, as Ann puts it, is not only the physical size but the tension, the emotions and subject matter conveyed by the work. Themes of agitation, for example, agitation that her mother expressed, Ann’s anger at the dementia, and the tension that comes with a child becomes the parent to their own mother or father. 

Ann’s large scale art created a space for Ann to process all these feelings. Among the depictions in her work are mother and child by night and by day, which Ann attributes to the cyclical nature of her experience.

These moments in the dementia journey are challenging, and these feelings are universal in their application to family life beyond just dementia care.  Families see themselves in the work, and Ann describes viewers being moved by the pieces, expressing their feelings of both sadness and gratitude.

Ann Clarke is a textile artist and professor at Syracuse University and the creator of a series of work, compiled over the course of 8 years, centering on the topic of being a caregiver for her mother who had dementia. View her work and upcoming exhibits at https://annclarkeart.com/.

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