Three artists who practiced their craft through dementia

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    Betsy Goldsborough's "His Harem" is part of the exhibition “TRIO: Exploring Dementia,” which opens on June 14, 2019, at ArtisTree Gallery in Pomfret, Vt., with a reception at 5:30 p.m. Courtesy ArtisTree Gallery

  • Margaret McCracken Courtesy ArtisTree Gallery

  • Brenda Phillips' work is part of the exhibition “TRIO: Exploring Dementia,” which opens on June 14, 2019, at ArtisTree Gallery in Pomfret, Vt., with a reception at 5:30 p.m.

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    Betsy Goldsborough's "Rosebud" is part of the exhibition “TRIO: Exploring Dementia,” which opens on June 14, 2019, at ArtisTree Gallery in Pomfret, Vt., with a reception at 5:30 p.m.

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 6/12/2019 10:00:46 PM
Modified: 6/12/2019 10:00:38 PM

In 2015, artist Betsy Goldsborough moved from her native Maryland to Woodstock, to be near two of her children living in Vermont. She had already been diagnosed with dementia and could no longer take care of herself. If dementia is the ruthless stripping away of memory and speech then surely it would also erode the ability to carry out the physical labor and intellectual cognition of making art.

To some extent, yes, said Goldsborough’s daughter Jean, who lives in Reading, Vt. But in other significant ways, no.

“It was interesting to watch her motions, I could really see that she still knew what to do with her hands,” said Goldsborough, who helped to care for her mother at the assisted living facility Woodstock Terrace in the months before her death in 2018.

Betsy Goldsborough had already made the shift from pastels to watercolors, because watercolors were less arduous for her. She could no longer craft the intensely observed and executed pastel portraits she’d made for most of her career, but she could still make the marks on paper, the swoops and lines. They were second nature. Which was why Jean Goldsborough encouraged her mother to keep at her art, despite the frustrations, and introduced her to art classes at ArtisTree Community Arts Center in South Pomfret.

Goldsborough’s work is part of the exhibition “TRIO: Exploring Dementia,” which opens Friday at ArtisTree Gallery with a reception at 5:30 p.m. The other two artists are Margaret McCracken (1952-2019) and Brenda Phillips (1956-2018), who also had been diagnosed with diseases that included symptoms of dementia. The exhibition continues through July 6.

As part of the exhibition, ArtisTree also will screen two films focusing on how the arts can help to mitigate the effects of dementia.

The first, on Saturday at 4 p.m., is the 2009 documentary I Remember Better When I Paint, which looks at the positive effects of making art on people with dementia. The second, the 2014 feature film Of Mind and Music, follows a doctor whose mother died of Alzheimer’s as he travels to New Orleans to immerse himself in the city’s musical culture. It screens on June 22, at 4 p.m.

ArtisTree mounts a TRIO exhibition twice a year, said gallery director Adrian Tans. Typically the exhibition is organized around a medium such as oil, watercolor, sculpture. Last year, one of the TRIO shows featured ceramics.

This year, after conversations with staff and others who had family members in the grip of dementia and Alzheimer’s, Tans asked, “What if we had a show exploring what the journey was like going from being a professional artist to having Alzheimer’s and dementia? What if we had the circumstance, not the medium?”

“None of this was on my radar before, but it’s been quite a process getting to know the families,” Tans said.

The artists had very different styles of working. Goldsborough was, for most of her career, a figurist who strove for absolute fidelity to her subjects; McCracken, who lived in Bridgewater, worked in stained glass, paint, drawing and photography; Phillips, who lived in Plainfield, was a painter of brilliantly colored fantastical landscapes populated by birds, animals and mythical creatures.

Artist Murray Ngoima, who lives in Pomfret and teaches art, worked with both Goldsborough and McCracken. “The power that this thing has: painting doesn’t let you go easily,” she said.

Their art was of the greatest importance to them, even as they struggled with diminishing mental capacity. While Goldsborough was able to continue to make art right up to the end of her life, McCracken’s disease was such that at a certain point she could no longer use her hands, Tans said.

Yet, the process of making art gave the women something that other activities might not always accomplish. “The essential thing in the moment is the relief of that anxiety. There’s value in that moment,” Ngoima said.

The dementia had blurred, even erased, Goldsborough’s sense of time, but she knew when she was scheduled to attend art class. “She would get very excited, nervous and excited. You could tell she looked forward to it,” said Jean Goldsborough.

“I intuitively felt that if she got that brush in the paint and got the brush on the paper, that kinesthetic impulse would kick in — and it did,” Ngoima said.

For Brenda Phillips, who lost her power of speech, painting was a way of talking to her husband, Ted Moynihan, said Tans. For McCracken, the experience of being around art made her happy, Tans added.

To lose the capacity to produce art, when you are an artist, would devastate anyone. Yet, there is no suggestion that the three women whose work is exhibited in “TRIO” gave up. They made art for as long as they could. There’s a sense of loss but also one of resilience.

Goldsborough was a very private person, her daughter said. She never expressed despair that she was losing some of her abilities.

“I don’t know for sure what she was thinking. But I knew she still loved it and that’s why I wanted her to keep going,” she said.

“TRIO: Exploring Dementia,” is on view through July 6 at ArtisTree Gallery in South Pomfret. For more information go to or call 802-457-3500.

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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