This interview with Lori Racicot is published in conjunction with MQR’s forthcoming issue dedicated to Caregiving & Caregivers guest edited by Heather McHugh.
For Lori Racicot, creating art unleashes tension, provides a sense of peace, and allows for self-discovery. Thriving on variety, her work ranges from the familiar to the abstract; often starting with nature as her inspiration, Racicot begins by keenly observing her surroundings and contemplating how she feels about the subject and what she wants to express. This allows her to create pieces influenced by her experiences and emotions.
The paintings of the “Where the Hell Did My Memory Go?” series, one of which serves as the cover for MQR’s Fall 2018 issue on caregiving, was informed by Racicot’s work with patients in residential nursing care facilities.
I’m curious about the title of your painting which appears on the cover of MQR’s Caregiving Issue: “Where the Hell Did My Memory Go?” Was the piece based on your work with Alzheimer’s patients?
The painting series “Where the Hell Did My Memory Go?” is based on my time creating artwork with individuals in residential nursing/memory care facilities who have various health-related issues including dementia and mental illness, as well as my experiences as a caregiver. The series title, “Where the Hell Did My Memory Go?” was penned by my father, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2016. Humor is so important when dealing with a chronic disease.
This is one painting in a series; why did you decide to do a series? How and when do you make that decision?
When painting abstracts, I like to start several pieces at once. Working in a series helps me to work through my emotions as well as develop a consistent idea. It allows me to intuitively move back and forth between the paintings, building up layers of paint and marks. Sometimes I want a layer of paint to dry before adding another layer, so I work on another painting. Other times I add layers on top of wet paint, working wet on wet. Depending on how much pressure I put on my brush/mark making tool, various interesting effects can occur.
When I begin a series, I lay a few pieces of paper on a table, gather the paint colors, markers, artist crayons, pencils and various mark-making tools — brushes, credit cards, empty paper towel rolls, erasers, netting, and whatever else I think will make interesting marks. I pick a color to pour on the paper and start spreading the paint around, varying the coverage on each piece of paper. Then, using a mark-making tool, I begin to add lines and shapes. Each line or shape informs the next. While the first marks are intuitive, as the paintings develop, I spend a lot of time observing the balance, harmony, and movement within the pieces, deciding where I need to add or delete lines and shapes until I feel they are finished.
How are the elements of the painting influenced by the subject matter?
While I usually create abstract paintings intuitively, without a plan, upon completion I study them to see what they reveal. I am sometimes hesitant to discuss what the paintings reveal to me because I wonder if my commentary about a painting will get in the way of what the viewer sees. Do I let the viewer create their own interpretation of the artwork based on the title, what they see in the painting, and their own experiences? I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer to that question.
Red is often associated with anger, and while sometimes I experience sadness as a caregiver, I am not angry. Anger is also not an emotion I have seen often in people I have worked with or cared for. I used red as the predominant color in the “Where the Hell Did My Mind Go?” series to attract viewers and to draw them to the artwork for a closer look. Energetic lines — some bold and black, others light and thin — suggest shapes, interconnectedness, and define relationships in the series. To me, the shapes might represent people, maybe even their brains. These shapes are connected by lifelines of various sizes and colors, representing family and community members — health care providers, social workers, and others who are working together to connect and provide care for people with Alzheimer’s. Layers of paint cover some areas representing memories forgotten. In other areas, sublayers of paint are revealed — memories brought to the surface by listening to music, dancing, creating art, looking at pictures, or having conversations.
You also paint landscapes and animals; why did you decide to paint “Where the Hell Did My Memory Go?” in the abstract?
Landscapes — and in particular, farm animals — are what I’m known for. The profile picture on my Facebook page is a painting of a pig that I painted several years ago — a failed landscape that morphed into a pig. I used the painting to teach sixth graders that not all things we begin work out, and sometimes surprises emerge, like the pig. The students named the pig “Horace” after a character in a novel we were reading.
Abstracts have always intrigued me, but as a self-taught painter, I never knew where to begin. A few years ago, wanting to grow as an artist, I began dabbling in abstract work with some success, but I always returned to what was comfortable: creating landscapes and animals. Last year, I became consumed with abstracts, taking workshops, spending hours studying the abstract work of artists I admire, and constantly experimenting with new techniques to represent various feelings to express myself. As I grew confident in my abilities, I introduced abstract painting to the residents I worked with. It was invigorating to watch them pick up a brush and push paint around with confidence as they created wonderfully expressive pieces. At that point, it made absolute sense to utilize abstract painting to represent my own feelings and experiences, as well as make connections regarding Alzheimer’s and caregiving.
What types of conversations do abstract works tend to create with your audience, as opposed to realistic paintings?
Both types of paintings create conversations about memories and experiences, but in looking at an abstract painting, viewers often go deeper into themselves to look for meaning or relationships, seeing things no one else can see. Abstracts allow for multiple interpretations.
Initially, viewers are often drawn to the “Where the Hell Did My Memory Go?” series because of the bright color. As they move closer and read the title, they often chuckle and make comments like, “Yeah, I also wonder about my memory these days!” Next, they’ll see a description of the work beneath the title:
For the past three years, I have painted with individuals, including those with dementia, at local skilled nursing and rehabilitation facilities, and I know first hand how creating art can promote healing and relieve stress. My new series of abstract paintings, “Where the Hell Did My Memory Go?” is inspired by my experiences working with these individuals as well as my personal experiences walking along side family members and friends who are living with dementia.
That is usually when they’ll open up and tell me about their own dementia or a relative’s, or perhaps their experiences as a caregiver. Almost everyone has an experience to share! It’s cathartic for all of us. An older couple that was downsizing purchased two paintings in the series for their new house because they were “reinventing themselves,” trading out their realistic artwork for abstract paintings. Another viewer looked at one of the paintings in the series and saw a rearview mirror, which she interpreted as reflecting on the past, which is what Alzheimer’s patients do as the disease progresses — go back in time, reliving old memories and experiences.
How did your caregiving experience influence “Where the Hell Did My Mind Go”?
In addition to working with individuals, I have volunteered in a memory care unit, painting with an elderly lady who had dementia. A week after she passed away, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He’s in the early stages and is very capable of caring for himself, except he does not cook. For the past two years, my sister and I visit him every month, cook and freeze food for him, and take him to doctor appointments. However, my sister lives three hours away and I am six hours away, so we worry about how we’re going to help him when the disease progresses. My grandmother also had dementia. At the time, my parents cared for her and my grandfather while they worked full-time. I lived two thousand miles away, but I was able to arrange for additional in-home care for her so she could stay at home with my grandfather until she passed away.
When working with or caring for someone with health or memory issues, the situation is often variable and fluid, and can change without warning. Caregivers need to be flexible. That’s how I approached this series of paintings: fluid and flexible, while using a variety of techniques to make marks on the paper.
Being a caregiver for individuals with health and memory issues, especially a long-distance caregiver, can be rewarding as well as stressful. I have been fortunate to develop deep relationships and connections with the people in my painting groups. My dad and I have spent many hours together getting to know and appreciate each other on a deeper level. As I answered above, the energetic lines in the painting — some bold and black, others light and thin — suggest interconnectedness, and they define strong relationships between the shapes (i.e. people). Moving paint around and creating marks on paper allows me to focus on the process and not worry about the final product. If I am happy with the outcome, great; if not, I was able to decompress while doing what I love, painting.
How do you see your painting, and the series in general, in conversation with our current cultural, political, and/or social atmosphere?
That is a big question. The following statistics, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, are startling:
- Currently, 5.7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s
- By 2050, 14 million Americans are projected to be living with Alzheimer’s
- 16.1 million Americans provide unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s or other dementia
- These caregivers provide an estimated 18.4 billion hours of care valued at $323 billion
- In 2018, Alzheimers and dementia will cost the nation $277 billion
- By 2050, these costs could rise to $1.1 trillion
Something clearly has to be done, and quickly. Alzheimer’s and dementia alone can financially cripple families. Funding for research, access to affordable health care, and resources to help caregivers are so important. When I started painting full-time, I decided that a portion of my sales would be donated to various community organizations. In the case of the “Where the Hell Did My Memory Go?” series, I chose the Alzheimer’s Association as the recipient.
Exhibiting these paintings, and having one chosen for the cover of Michigan Quarterly Review, will hopefully raise additional awareness and prompt conversations about what we need to do as a society to not only find a cure for Alzheimer’s and dementia, but to help caregivers — many of whom are caring for individuals with other ailments, as well.
Who inspires you?
That is a multifaceted question. First, I am inspired by my parents who taught me to work hard. I am also inspired by many artists — the impressionists, post-impressionists, abstract expressionists, contemporaries, and so many others. It’s difficult to pick a few. This summer, I visited the Richard Diebenkorn: Beginnings 1942 – 1955 exhibit at the Portland Art Museum, the exhibits Making Modern and French Pastels at the Boston Museum of Fine Art, the New Britain Museum of American Art’s annual juried exhibition, and the exhibit at Clark Art Institute entitled Women Artists in Paris, 1850 – 1900. Finally, I am inspired by a friend whose son committed suicide, someone who wrote to me and encouraged me to share my gift from God. Heeding her words, I shared my own experiences with anxiety by creating the painting “mental illness is NOT black and white.”
It is my hope to find a local caregiving group where I can facilitate an expressive art experience using supplies that I purchase with the compensation I receive for the use of my painting on the cover of MQR. I would also like to create some much larger pieces for the “Where the Hell Did My Memory Go?” series in order to continue the conversation about Alzheimer’s and caregiving.
While cleaning out files recently, I came across letters written by my former fourth grade students. As I reread them, I noticed a common message throughout the letters, “you are the best…” While that is probably a common statement made to fourth grade teachers, I remember how special those words made me feel, and I want to share that special feeling with others in a new abstract series, “you are the best…!”
Find out more about Racicot’s work at loriracicot.com.