As memory fades, an artist emerges

The artwork of seven artists living with dementia is on display at Seattle City Hall.

Artist Rafe Schwimmer poses for a photograph with his son Eli during the opening party for ‘The Art of Alzheimer’s: The Artist Within’ at Seattle City Hall on Jan. 10, 2019. Schwimmer's wife and three children, as well as a circle of friends and supportive caregivers, joined him to celebrate the exhibition of his and others' work. (All photos by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut) 

Rafael “Rafe” Schwimmer, 68, has been living with Alzheimer’s since his early-onset diagnosis in 2014.

Before learning he would be enduring a battle with dementia, Schwimmer was in the twilight of his 40-year career as a lawyer, most recently as a public defender in Snohomish.

Now days spent focused on logic and analytical thought have given way to artistic creation. Schwimmer creates sketches of bright colors and interesting shapes with colored pencils, oil pastels and watercolors. A unique moniker on almost every Schwimmer artwork is a pair of eyes.

Schwimmer is now among the seven artists whose creations are on exhibition at Seattle City Hall as part of The Art of Alzheimer’s: The Artist Within exhibit. Fifty paintings will be on display through March 6.

"These artists are living entirely in the moment with no reference to the past or future," says Marilyn Raichle, curator and founder of the exhibition, who partners with Elderwise to make it happen. Raichle's personal connection to those living with dementia started with her now late mother. "It's so beautiful to see the world through the lens of each artist living with Alzheimer's," she said. "There are often times when each artist is painting something completely different when they are looking at the same scene or still life."

For those artists, painting offers a way to change the Alzheimer’s narrative from one of fear and loneliness to one of togetherness, happiness and collaborative inspiration.

"This exhibition gives a path for people to relate to those with dementia in a completely different way," says Raichle.  

Rafe Schwimmer rests his head on the shoulder of his wife, Paula, while in an elevator at Seattle City Hall. "It’s a different kind of closeness now. When you’re married for so long, you envision growing old together and traveling, doing stuff with the grandkids," she says. The couple have been married for 38 years. Paula Schwimmer left her career as an educator to support her husband full-time when his diagnosis required that he retire from his law career. "It wasn't what I had expected for our retirement," she says.

Rafe Schwimmer's creations are always vibrant and colorful, often taking on a different perspective by simply rotating the paper or changing the angle of your perspective. "I'm trying to paint movement with my drawings and bring my characters to life," he says. Shapes morph into lines and transform back into shapes, all of it drawn from his imagination as he creates at his desk at his Shoreline home. 

After a break from drawing, Paula and Rafe Schwimmer dance at home in Shoreline to an old Hank Williams record playing loudly on a turntable. "He liked to dance with me before, but more so now because his inhibitions are less than they used to be," she says, with a slight chuckle. Once a week the couple take dance classes together, with help from Momentia, a grassroots organization devoted to keeping those living with dementia active and engaged in the community. 

Rafe Schwimmer creates art with colored pencils, oil pastels and watercolors at his home studio in Shoreline. He often creates while listening to music; Paula Schwimmer will often arrange his art supplies on his desk and leave the room, shutting the door behind her. Music fills the house while Rafe Schwimmer loses himself in the act of creating. "Nothing is standing still," he says. "Everything is moving and working together."

Rafe and Paula Schwimmer laugh while looking at one of his many drawings on the wall of a bedroom-turned-personal art gallery at home. "This was one of our kids' bedrooms growing up," Paula Schwimmer says. "Once Rafe started creating all of this art, we needed a place to showcase it inside the house. This has become his gallery at home to look at and show off all of his wonderful work."

Paula and Rafe Schwimmer walk along Fourth Avenue in downtown Seattle on their way to Seattle City Hall for the opening of 'The Art of Alzheimer’s: The Artist Within' exhibition. "We take the bus, but I need to make sure I hold onto him. I don’t know my way around downtown and I don’t want him to get separated from me — so I just hang onto him and we go," she says. She realizes it can be tough for her husband after losing much of the independence he once had. "He hasn’t driven for about four years, and I know he misses it. It sometimes makes him sad and angry that he can't drive anymore."

Rafe Schwimmer reacts with joy after seeing his work on display as part of 'The Art of Alzheimer’s: The Artist Within' exhibition inside the lobby of Seattle City Hall. Approximately 50 close-knit and supportive Alzheimer's community members turned out for the event on a recent evening in Seattle, celebrating the artists and helping ensure their journey of memory loss isn't experienced alone. 

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About the Authors & Contributors

Matt M. McKnight

Matt M. McKnight

Matt McKnight is formerly a visual journalist at Crosscut, where he covered a variety of political, social and environmental issues around the Pacific Northwest.