After watching her grandmother, mother and aunt slowly die of dementia, Becky Gottsegen learned there was more to the disease than confusion and anxiety.
So she decided to show it in the only way the artist knew how.
Gottsegen created 16 sculptures of Louisiana men and women suffering from forms of dementia, like Alzheimer’s and Lewy Body Disease.
But, in molding them, she wanted to convey another side of the ravaging disease.
“I want to give them a face and show there is still beauty and a soul there,” said Gottsegen, 63.
Her work appears in the show, “Finding the Forgotten … in the Shadows of the Mind” at the Gallery at Manship in the Shaw Center for the Arts in downtown Baton Rouge.
The show features Gottsegen’s ceramic sculptures along with drawings of the human brain created by Taryn Möller Nicoll, the artist in residence at the Neuroscience Center of Excellence at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. The two artists shared an interest in how art can increase awareness of the nearly 5 million people in the U.S. currently struggling with dementia.
When her mother died nearly 10 years ago, Gottsegen watched vascular dementia take her mind. Far from just a loss of memory, dementia took her ability to do anything, even stand up or eat.
“It’s a very painful, long, slow, awful process,” Gottsegen said.
For the artist, these sculptures are a departure from her usual light-hearted works.
Gottsegen has crafted clever “art bras” for the BUST Breast Cancer event for Woman’s Hospital, including one bra that featured two wolves’ heads in place of the traditional cups. Another series of sculptures she did portrays older men and women in bright, skimpy swimwear, smoking cigarettes or walking dogs.
But these sculptures of men and women living with dementia are different.
“Everybody thought I was going to paint them,” she said. “I said, ‘No, that’s the work you chuckle about. This is serious.’”
When Gottsegen finished sculpting the busts, she considered using a bronze finish. After firing them in the kiln, she was pleased with their stark white appearance.
“It kind of gives them, to me, a sense of purity,” she said. “It kind of cuts to the basics of this person.”
Gottsegen met most of the men and women through Charlie’s Place Respite Center, a day center created by Alzheimer’s Services of the Capital Area, where people with dementia can receive socialization, therapy and stimulation.
Two of the portraits depict men who are well known in Baton Rouge.
Mike Anderson, the All-American football player from LSU and a well-known owner of restaurants bearing his name, was diagnosed with dementia related to concussions. In his bust, he appears affable, slightly leaning in as if to say, “Hello.”
The sculpture depicting Paul Gates, a longtime broadcast journalist for WAFB in Baton Rouge, shows the trusted reporter looking straight ahead with his lips formed into a knowing smile.
Gottsegen’s sculpture of her mother, Alice, stands out. She has wings.
The artist hopes she is “soaring in her afterlife.”
Gottsegen said she wants the show to change the way people feel about those who suffer from dementia.
“I think it’s really more about learning compassion,” she said.