Mary Lou Grace Robison only picked up art at the beginning of high school, but looking at her pieces, you’d think she was decades into the craft. At 19 years old, she is wise beyond her years. But something she struggles to comprehend is seeing her grandmother, who worked in the medical field at Kaiser until 85 years old, decline from an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
“I began looking back on the progression of her disease and thinking about the possible warning signs that hinted at something worse than just dementia,” Robison wrote for Being Patient in an essay. She said the memories of tending to roses in her grandmother’s garden while listening to Willie Nelson seemed like yesterday. “We would listen to the same Willie Nelson Greatest Hits record and she would know every song,” Now, Mary Lou Grace said, her grandmother doesn’t recognize her.
The high school student was contending with not only her own pain, but the pain of her mother watching the matriarch of her family fall prey to this destructive disease. Alzheimer’s doesn’t run in their family, but now it is running their family’s lives. Instead of succumbing to sadness, Robison followed in the footsteps of her grandmother and turned to art as a coping mechanism. She decided to make her grandmother’s journey with Alzheimer’s the focus of her AP art portfolio. Robison rummaged through old pictures to categorize the stages of the disease, focusing on her grandmother’s cognitive decline and loss of physical faculties.
The ache and confusion are tangibly felt when looking through the dynamic, mixed-medium portfolio. Her grandmother’s delicate, weathered hands pressed against her forehead in anguish, as she looks into the viewer’s eyes for answers – those same hands trying to grasp the past, as they reach towards handwritten cooking recipes, like lemon squares.
“I wanted to portray my grandma’s journey with Alzheimer’s as a way to both commemorate and preserve her honor,” all while “raising awareness and reaching out to a larger Alzheimer’s community,” Robison explained. She entered a national art contest, not thinking anything would come from it. But her art clearly struck a chord, so much so she was flown out to New York so her work could be judged nationally at Carnegie Hall. Robison uploaded a video of her art on TikTok, which garnered even greater attention and support.
As I looked through Mary Lou Grace’s pieces, I realized that we had something in common. I too used art as a way to come to terms with my grandpa’s Parkinson’s diagnosis, focusing my final Photography portfolio on him. Like Robison’s grandmother, my grandfather Leonard never walked without a song. Even on days when it was difficult for him to hold a teacup, he has this way of making everyone around him smile. I decided to focus my final project on my grandfather with the hopes of capturing the essence of his life on a day-to-day basis, the loneliness and confusion, while still showing his sophistication, positivity and humor. Like Robison, exploring my grandfather through art broadened my awareness and knowledge of his being in a way that will stick with me forever.
Robison hopes to carry on her grandmother’s legacy, in a way only a namesake could. Mary Lou Grace’s first name honors her grandmother, Mary Lou Cormier. Her focus is preserving who Cormier is at her core – an incredible cook, equestrian and ocean lover, but most importantly, a strong-willed woman with a perpetually positive nature.
“Throughout her battle with the disease, she has continually been thankful and grateful for everything that she’s given, and her positive mentality has always stuck with her,” Robison noted. “Any time I have with her is amazing.”