Amelia, a Palo Alto resident, often packed or collected personal belongings in preparation for an imagined trip or train ride in the earlier stages of her illness. In an effort to explore the ways that Alzheimer's has shaped her grandmother's understanding of the world around her, Lucas has photographed many of Amelia's cherished travel items and sentimental goods, along with various handwritten notes.
"One time she just had nine coats that she was carrying around the house," Lucas said, pointing to photographs of her grandmother's coats and a purse. "And it doesn't make sense, right? She put this photo album in there that my mom makes her every few years just to remind her who her family members are. She packed up her purse and was carrying her wallet around the house, which had a $20 bill, a pin and a hearing-aid battery."
Once Amelia had caregivers by her side on a daily basis, Lucas said she didn't have as much time to pack for anticipated trips. Lucas then began collecting Amelia's handwritten notes with help from her mother, Esther, who currently lives with Amelia. Esther saved the notes in a box until Lucas could decide how she wanted to use them in her next art installation.
Lucas, who's earned two fine-arts degrees, has always been interested in how ideas are passed down from generation to generation. A 2013 solo road trip influenced by her family's history led to a body of work called "In Search of Home," which captured images of botanicals and rocks throughout 13 states, including California. The collection, she said, explored the ties of racial taxonomy and her own family's emigration patterns.
Following her road trip, she captured an index of others' sentimental items called "Objects to Remember You By," which originally included Amelia's items and notes her mother had set aside. Although the project began as one archive of sentimental items, it became two separate chronicles. "Collections from Sundown" became its own standalone story.
"It started with these objects ... like what does someone hold onto, that makes it a place of home for them?" Lucas explained. "I think of home more as a concept or idea rather than a place. Our experience has so much to do with how we define that."
Amelia — who sometimes goes by the nicknames Amy or Millie — grew up in New York and moved to Michigan the year she married her husband, 1943. After their relocation, she complained that she was "bored to tears" and decided to go to school. After obtaining her master's degree in psychology at the age of 19 from the University of Michigan, she obtained her second master's degree in social work from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1967. Lucas described her grandmother as witty, with a sarcastic sense of humor. Daily three-mile walks, riding classes and quilting, Lucas said, were a few of Amelia's favorite hobbies before she became ill.
"I feel very lucky that I got to know her as an adult, because you have a very different relationship with parents and grandparents once you become an adult," Lucas said. "I feel lucky that I got to spend that time with her. But then I also see a lot of what's happened because she never seemed like an old lady until she got sick. She's in her 80s and people would be like, 'Your grandma seems so young.' Then all of the sudden, she got really old."
While viewing the exhibit, there is a clear progression in the flow of the photos that conveys Amelia's yearning to organize her thoughts and her inability to do so. Lucas pointed out that a few of the notes are addressed to "Mom," which is the name Amelia occasionally calls her daughter, Esther. Amelia calls Lucas "Selma" (Amelia's sister's name), which inspired Lucas to get a tattoo of the name on her right arm. "Try to take a bath (or shower) sometime today," reads one note.
"There is redundancy, kind of in the same way that there's redundancy in a lot of conversations with her. With somebody with Alzheimer's or dementia, they often have a repeat loop," she said. "I hope that people can connect with it in one way or another. I hope that people will feel comfortable looking to their loved ones, asking about their lives and talking about difficult things. It's an important conversation," she said. "I feel like it's been a good way to show her story, sort of like from both of our points of view, together."
What: "Collections from Sundown"
When: Through Aug. 27, Tuesday-Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday, 1-5 p.m.
Where: Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road, Palo Alto
Info: Go to cityofpaloalto.org/gov/depts/csd/artcenter/default.asp
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