Lester E. Potts grew up in a Mississippi saw mill and spent his entire career in the lumber business. He developed Alzheimer’s at the age of 70, not long after retiring.
Daniel, his son, was always close with Lester, admiring his loving nature and “Great Depression work ethic,” and he listened intently to his father’s frequent stories about his childhood. But when Lester developed Alzheimer’s, he stopped speaking very much, and he became depressed as well, which seemed to only compound and hasten his cognitive decline. To Daniel and the rest of their family, it seemed like Lester had given up. They took Lester to Caring Days, a daycare center for those afflicted with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
“Dad found himself there,” Daniel said.
At Caring Days, a retired artist named George Parker had begun volunteering his time to work with people with dementia. Though Parker was not a traditional art therapist, he wanted to share his talents, and Lester took to it immediately. When Lester brought home his first painting—a watercolor rendering of a hummingbird—his wife didn’t even believe he had painted it.
Over the next few years, Lester created more than 100 watercolors paintings. At first, he painted from photos and other items George shared with the group, but quickly, he began painting from memory.
“This man who appeared to be sort of broken by this disease was actually kind of unleashed in some way,” Daniel said. “He became an artist. Vignettes of his life came out of this art. He began to paint crosscut saws that he used to use in the saw mill. He began to paint the ends of logs, sort of a wood grain theme that he would pull into his paintings. He would paint old houses, churches, bird houses. He painted his own sawing buddy and coworker named Albert, a picture of him putting a saw together. He painted his father’s hat and shoes.”
Over time, as his dementia developed, Lester’s art changed, too. At first, his work was fairly realistic in composition, but as his spatial awareness diminished, the forms became more abstract. His earliest paintings featured a variety of vibrant color, but as time passed, his palette winnowed to just blues, greens and purples, then just blues and greens, and finally, no color at all. His final piece was a monochromatic saw blade.
Through it all, Lester took great joy in showing his art to people and giving the pieces away. Sharing them with others cheered him up as much as creating the pieces in the first place. It had a positive effect on not just Lester, but on his loved ones, too.
“It really gave us hope, in addition to having many, many benefits for him,” Daniel said. “It helped with his depression. It helped his verbal ability, his communication ability, his behavior. He seemed to get a little better cognitively, but I don’t know how much of that was just his depression being treated. He found himself again, found his story, and was able to express that story.”
Daniel learned an important lesson. Through his father’s art, Daniel connected with Lester in a way he never had before, even after Lester had lost nearly all of his verbal ability. Daniel is a practicing neurologist, and beyond his own father, the lesson he learned changed the way he sees his patients, too.
“I’ve now learned to really change my glasses when I look at people with disability in general,” Daniel said. “I expect the human being to still be underneath that facade that they’d be staring and speaking. I need to not give up on them, and I need to have ways to tap into that personhood. This is a way that I can remain in relationship with people that have the disease. The disease kind of cuts people off and isolates people, but we don’t have to let it do that. We can tap in through the arts or storytelling or dance or movement or whatever.”
It also inspired Daniel to pursue the arts himself. He began writing poetry after seeing how positive painting had been for Lester. He recently published a book of his poems, along with his father’s artwork.