Cork artist paints people with dementia - inspired by her own mum

Cork artist Gillian Cussen tells MARY HASSETT about her new exhibition, portraying people with dementia and laying bare each person’s humanity. Among the subjects is the artist’s own mother.
Cork artist paints people with dementia - inspired by her own mum
Artist Gillian Cussen with mum, Jan who features in the exhibition at County Library Headquarters, County Hall until November 22.

THE woman in the portrait has twinkling eyes and a smile that lights up her face. It’s impossible not to smile back at her.

The portrait makes you forget that this is a woman living with dementia. Instead, it reminds you that this is a woman full of humanity and good humour with a rich and multi-layered past.

The work features in an exhibition of ten portraits by artist Gillian Cussen entitled Memory is Grey.

The exhibition opened on Monday and runs to to Friday, November 22, in the County Library Headquarters, adjoining the County Hall, on Carrigrohane Road.

Gillian called the exhibition Memory is Grey because she believes that loss of memory is more complex and nuanced than is currently portrayed in society.

“The idea of memory and its loss as being black or white, i.e., present or absent, is too simplistic and dehumanising”, Gillian maintains.

She feels that the fear and negativity surrounding memory loss needs to be replaced with a more humane, accepting and compassionate approach.

“The ten people portrayed (in the exhibition) have, like everyone else, pasts which are both ordinary and extraordinary.

“They are beloved daughters, sisters, mothers, sons, interior designers, homemakers, nurses, beauty therapists, friends and neighbours”, Gillian points out.

The inspiration for the exhibition came from the fact that Gillian’s own mother, Jan, was diagnosed with vascular dementia four years ago.

Like Gillian, Jan derives great satisfaction and enjoyment from art.

The exhibition was influenced too by Gillian’s work over the past ten years as an Art Facilitator in nursing homes such as Abbeylands in Kildorrery and Oak Lodge in Cloyne.

Gillian also facilitates Lonradh sessions for people with memory loss and their loved ones at the Crawford Art Gallery, on the last Wednesday of every month.

She is eager for older adults who may be experiencing memory problems to come along to these free dedicated visits to the Crawford Gallery, where the main focus is on companionship and enjoyment.

Not alone is Gillian a highly skilled and talented art facilitator but she also has many years’ experience in the field of social work.

The eldest of nine children, she trained as a social worker when she left school. Her first love was always art but she wasn’t initially successful in accessing a place in the Crawford College of Art and Design.

Artist Gillian Cussen.
Artist Gillian Cussen.

Every cloud has a silver lining, however, as Gillian discovered that she really enjoyed being a social worker.

In addition, it was while she was working with homeless young people in Glasgow that she met Ted, her beloved husband, and fellow social worker.

The couple, who have four grown-up children, have been living near Kilworth for many years.

Following the death of her dad, Gillian was left money which enabled her to apply to the Crawford Art College as a mature student. She went on to graduate with a Degree in Fine Arts in 2008, followed by a Higher Diploma the following year.

Gillian quickly realised that she would love to work with older people as an Art Facilitator in nursing home settings as well as in the Crawford Art Gallery.

Such is the bond that she has built up with these older people in the nursing homes and the Lonradh sessions that she had no bother getting volunteers to sit for their portraits.

“All the sitters were thrilled to be included and they were all happy with the initial sketches,” Gillian adds.

Not surprisingly, her mum, Jan, also features in the exhibition.

Gillian has often drawn her mum’s portrait in the past, something they both have enjoyed.

“Mum hasn’t seen the portrait yet and I want to surprise her at the exhibition,” Gillian says.

“I imagine memory as layers which we peel back, close over, dip in and out of, and add to or erase from.

“That’s why I decided to use layering as a method in the creation of the portraits.”

There are up to four layers in each portrait and Gillian used Perspex sheets to create a more complicated, three-dimensional aspect to the pictures.

“While doing the preparatory drawings and taking photographs, I got to know my sitters a little more personally and in this relaxed and quiet environment, I enjoyed our talk and communication together,” says Gillian.

This quiet and relaxed atmosphere was much appreciated by one couple in particular.

Valerie just wants to be known by her first name. She asked that her husband’s name not be mentioned as he thinks there is no problem with his memory.

“I was so happy about Gillian doing my husband’s portrait. She came out to our house and we had a lovely chat afterwards,” Valerie says. “My husband likes to be noticed and he loved having his portrait done.

Dr Michael Waldron, Assistant Curator of Collections and Special Projects at the Crawford Art Gallery, and Amy Murphy, North Cork Dementia Adviser, Alzheimer Society of Ireland, jointly opened the exhibition on Monday afternoon.

Nicola, from Wilkie’s Jewellers and Fine Art Framing, Midleton, worked closely with Gillian to ensure that the frames perfectly suited the portraits.

The ten portraits featured in the exhibition will be gifted to the sitters and their families.

“I invite visitors to look and see the individuality and humanity of my sitters,” says Gillian.

The ‘Memory is Grey’ Exhibition will be held at County Library Headquarters until November 22, 9am to 5.30pm (weekdays only).


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