Dana Walrath is a writer, artist, and anthropologist. She spent 2012-2013 as a Fulbright Scholar in Armenia working on a project that builds on Aliceheimer’s (Harvest 2013) an award winning graphic memoir series about life with her mother, Alice, before and during Alzheimer’s disease. Her first novel, Like Water on Stone, set during the Armenian genocide, is forthcoming with Delacorte Press in the fall of 2014.
Always interested in edges, margins, and connections, I weave many distinct threads through my work. As a young one, my thought processes turned first to images, just as they do for other young primates. I came to words and to their concatenation into story only much later. The science and stories of anthropology helped me find my way toward writing. One of the best things about growing older is that seemingly disparate threads—visual art, writing, and anthropology—are now integrated. Each of these disciplines regards lived experience as essential to the creative process. Art comes not only from the lives we live but it also has the power to change how we live. I believe in the transformative power of art.
As a young New Yorker at Barnard College, Columbia University, I split my courses between visual arts and biology: painting with Milton Resnick, printmaking with Tony Smith, and lab work on the eye-brain connections of zebrafish. My oil paintings and intaglio prints were abstractions inspired by natural and biological forms of all scales. I was equally drawn to imagery seen under the microscope and the sweep of the earth’s surface particularly when it has been worked and touched by humans for millennia.
After several years working as artist-in-residence in New York public schools, teaching general biology, and having babies, anthropology captured my attention. Finding comfort with words through writing a dissertation on the anthropology of childbirth (PhD University of Pennsylvania), led me to start writing my own stories and to incorporate stories and words as objects into my art and teaching. This comfort with words also opened the door for representational elements to emerge in my artwork. Still, the creative writing and artwork was done mostly during hours stolen from sleep and squeezed between other responsibilities.
The balance tipped toward creative work shortly after my dementing mother, Alice, moved in with me and my family. Alice had always wanted me to be a doctor. When she stood in my kitchen in early 2008, admiring the cabinet knobs I had hand painted and said, “You should quit your job and make art full time,” I listened. At the end of the semester, I took a leave of absence from my position as a professor of medical humanities at the University of Vermont’s College of Medicine and haven’t looked back. During this time, I earned an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and discovered and fell in love with graphic narratives.
In the fall of 2010, an artist friend who lives in Beijing, Patty Hudak, and I made a pact to make a drawing a day and to email them to each other. I sent her Alice drawings in part to process my own grief after placing my mother in an Alzheimer’s residence after several years of her living with us in Vermont. But I was also drawing to remember the magic and laughter that we shared during those years. The collage elements that had long been a part of my intaglio printmaking made their way into our story. I found this graphic memoir’s voice the day I cut up a cheap paperback copy of Alice in Wonderland to make my mother’s bathrobe, her favorite garment. Haloes reminiscent of Armenian illuminated manuscripts, appeared spontaneously around Alice’s head, a subconscious reference to her first language, to her reversion to childhood and to her altered magical state. Once I found the voice, I filled a small moleskin sketchbook with a series of Aliceheimer’s drawings as part of the Brooklyn Art Library’s Sketchbook Project 2011. This project reverses the rules of engaging with art and books. People “check out” the sketchbooks and touch the original art, which gradually disappears so that only a digital record remains.
For me, as the original drawings disappeared, new layers emerged. I began to print life size versions of the digital images onto canvas and large sheets of paper, and to embroider the haloes and slippers to honor my mother’s love for mending. As I was sewing, I realized that the back sides of the cloth had a tangle of threads reminiscent of the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease. As I started using an awl to poke holes in the canvas for the threads to save my fingertips, another layer appeared. My mother’s father, a shoemaker, must have used an awl each day at work.
Pictures’ ability to tap into subconscious processes for both the composer and the reader give graphic story telling special power. In turn, this power can support those with dementia. It can heal and support individual caregivers, and it can help re-write the dominant biomedical story of dementia and how we age globally. This biomedical story is in desperate need of revision. It is a zombie story of bodies without minds. These original drawings and accompanying stories have just been published as Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s through the Looking Glass (Harvest 2013) and contribute to restoring the humanity of those living with dementia.
Other anthropological and scientific tropes also entered my art work at this time. I began to revisit the anthropology of childbirth using the CT scans that had been part of my dissertation. The related topics of heredity and sexual dimorphism also found their way into my writing and art. I found various ways to engage with DNA and the oversimplification of what it means to be human that comes about through genetics by building DNA molecules out of various materials or decorating clothing with codons. Other collage based works engage with the social construction of borders and boundaries, both of individual beings and the land they inhabit. That physical, social, and national borders are drawn by humans, that pieces of art have boundaries, make them a perfect subject for art.
I spent 2012-2013 as a Fulbright scholar in Yerevan, Armenia creating art and writing about growing old in that ancient culture, a project that builds upon Aliceheimer’s. I am currently working on a graphic memoir that blends the Fulbright work with my mother’s story, tentatively titled Between Alice and the Eagle. In Armenia, I helped a group of comics artists with “Visualizing Free Expression,” a project funded by a US State Department Democracy Commission Grant, to bring comic artists from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey together to talk about hard stuff and to communicate across closed borders. The project’s biggest event was a 24 hour comics marathon in which comics artists pledge to create 24 pages of comics in 24 hours, that took place in Gyumri, a city on the opposite side of the closed border with Kars, Turkey.
I’ve shown my artwork in a variety of settings in North America and Europe and have received grants and residencies from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Woodstock School of Art, the Vermont Studio Center, and the Vermont Arts Council. In the fall of 2013, I returned to Armenia to give a talk at TEDx Yerevan titled “Comics, Medicine, and Memory Lost and Found.” My verse novel, Like Water on Stone, is forthcoming from Delacorte Press, Random House in 2014. This story of three young ones, who survive the Armenian genocide by running during the day and hiding at night, uses words to create images.
I made this to accompany my review (for Anthropology Now 5(2) 2013) of Ian Brown’s powerful memoir The Boy in the Moon, about life with his son, Walker, who has a rare genetic disorder. Because Brown hated how the science of genetics reduced his son to a typing error in a sequence of DNA I wanted to give Walker a codon shirt that he could strip off and be himself. Also shown at the “Ethics Under Cover” Participants Exhibit, 4th International Comics and Medicine Conference, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, Falmer, UK.
Five re-ordered pages from the original Aliceheimer’s series from Brooklyn Art Library, Sketchbook Project 2011 made into a comic strip shown at “Navigating the Margins” Participants Exhibit, 3rd International Comics and Medicine Conference, Health Sciences, University of Toronto, CA.