Hilda Gorenstein was a gifted artist. Born in Montreal in 1905, she grew up in Portland, Oregon and graduated from Chicago’s School of the Art Institute. To avoid the prejudice against women artists, she signed her works, “Hilgos”. Her watercolors, oils, acrylics, sculptures and drawings were exhibited across the United States. Buyers added them to collections around the world.
But success can never insure us against the vicissitudes of aging. For Gorenstein, life’s little erosions turned major when she was diagnosed with progressive memory loss. As her symptoms worsened, her daughter, Berna Huebner, asked if she would like to paint again. She responded, “Yes, I remember better when I paint.”
On the advice of Dr. Lawrence Lazarus, a geriatric psychiatrist at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center, Huebner contacted the School of the Art Institute. They agreed to connect Gorenstein with students. In a 1998 article, Meg McSherry Breslin of the Chicago Tribune described the impact of those connections:
“It was an incredible thing,” said Carol Becker, dean of faculty at the School of the Art Institute. “It was as if she had retreated very far into a very private world, but from the artwork somehow she was able to create some brilliant things.”
Until she died in 1998, at the age of 93, Gorenstein continued to paint, thanks to her daughter’s encouragement and the stimulation of working with students. Bresli
The students who worked with Mrs. Gorenstein were amazed to see how passionate she remained about her work. They would sit on either side of her wheelchair, dip brushes into paints, hand the brushes to Mrs. Gorenstein and watch her go to work.
“Once she felt the brush in her hand she’d start painting,” said Robin Barcus, an artist and an assistant to Mrs. Gorenstein. “These were definitely her paintings.”
Barcus said her relationship with Mrs. Gorenstein was inspiring.
“I learned from her that when you’re an artist, you’re an artist for life,” she said. “It becomes as essential as breathing. I saw the change that would happen in her when she was given an opportunity to paint, how even her breath would change, how her mood would lift.”
After Gorenstein’s death, family and friends started a foundation to provide scholarships for students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Inspired by the impact of art on her mother, Berna Huebner created a documentary “about the positive impact of art and other creative therapies on people with Alzheimer’s and how these approaches can change the way we look at the disease.” Writing about the film, I Remember Better When I Paint, for the Vancouver Sun, Anna Bowness-Park said:
Hilgos’ story is more than just inspiring. Despite suffering from Alzheimers, she discovered that she had not lost her capacity to imagine and to express it in her art. This can serve as a reminder that we do not have to limit our own or a loved one’s potential to the human brain. And that beauty has a deeply healing effect in our lives. When we cultivate a sense of divine consciousness and spiritual beauty for others as well as ourselves, we are reminded who we – and they – really are.
That moves me to tears. My mother’s Alzheimer’s robbed her of so much that defined her—her gregariousness, her unfailing willingness to help others, her keen intelligence, her self-confidence. Yet as people told stories of her at her memorial service, I could hear how much they loved and honoured her, right up until her death.
Watch the trailer below, and then seek out the film. It is a beautiful reminder that people with Alzheimer’s can still sparkle when the parts of the brain that are still functioning well are engaged in creative activities. It gives me hope that the stigma of dementia will gradually give way to an appreciation of the gifts that remain.