My mother and I did some finger painting the other day. At this stage of her dementia, choosing a favorite color or deciding what shape to draw is something that doesn’t compute; even the tactile experience of dipping fingers into the paint and touching them to paper failed to arouse her excitement or curiosity. After much prompting though, she did manage to place 4 or 5 blue dots on the page with her fingertips. From then on, she was content to sit and watch me work — as if I had any better command of the medium than she did.

Much to my surprise, I found our first piece very encouraging. Some may accuse me of cheating when I chose 2 smaller sections to frame for her apartment: I prefer to see it as “artistic license.” The right-hand image below reminds me of Kandinsky’s early work.

Moving on, I attempted something more representational — a portrait of my mother. Once I drew the outline of her face however, I knew it was a lost cause: There was no way I would ever capture anything remotely resembling her likeness. Much better to do a self-portrait, I thought, where glasses and a mustache would hopefully hide all other artistic deficiencies. So I stuck with what I had already painted and just added different details. “Close enough,” said my inner critic. (Judging from my mother’s reaction, I’m not sure she saw what I did.)

Still, I was on a roll. Why not paint directly on my face! It’s a measure of my mother’s disappearing boundaries that she didn’t object when I accompanied her to the dining room looking like I did:

There, I explained to S~, another assisted-living resident and a former portrait painter, that this technique was a way to ensure a more accurate portrayal — “No one can say I got the jawline or proportions wrong!” He laughed in agreement. A week later, I was proud to show him the pieces I had framed for my mother.

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