The Current

This Scottish artist is using art to inspire compassion for dementia patients

Mark Gilbert is a medical researcher and artist who creates portraits of people suffering from dementia, along with the people who care for them. He tells The Current about his work, and the hope that his art will help people feel more compassion for those living with the disease.

‘Pictures are able to speak to people about these kind of challenging times,' says Mark Gilbert

Artist and researcher Mark Gilbert at his studio in Halifax. Gilbert is creating portraits of dementia patients in hopes of fostering compassion for people living with the disease. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

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For 20 years, Scottish artist and medical researcher Mark Gilbert has been drawing pictures of people at the most traumatic moments of their lives.

He started in one of London's busiest hospitals, drawing people's heads during operations, sketching severely disfigured individuals, and illustrating people with facial diseases and cancers.

"My fear was through the roof beginning in that project," he told The Current. "I had no experience of illness myself."

Then, two years ago, his mother's health began to deteriorate when she suffered a stroke. She'd already been living with dementia.

Mark's father, Scottish painter Norman Gilbert, began sitting at his wife Pat's bedside and drawing her.

Scottish painter Norman Gilbert drew this sketch of his wife, Pat, on her deathbed. She was his muse for 70 years. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

At first, Mark wasn't ready to look at his father's drawings. But over time, he said, it's helped him deal with his mother's death.

Now, Mark is in Canada, where he is working under the supervision of Dalhousie University's Dr. Ken Rockwood and the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

He draws portraits of dementia patients and their caregivers in hopes of inspiring compassion among medical students, and the public, for people living with the disease.

Sketching from an 'honest' perspective

At Margaret and David Quinlivan-Hall's home in Lower Sackville, N.S., Mark gets to work on two such portraits.

Artist and researcher Mark Gilbert sketches David Quinlivan-Hall at the dementia patient's Nova Scotia home. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

David was diagnosed with dementia at the age of 59, when two of the couple's six children were still in high school.

The family has been living with the disease for nine years now, and Margaret is his caregiver.

As Mark sketches each of them, his goal is not likeness, but "making sure that the marks you're making are as honest a response to who's in front of you as possible," he said.

David Quinlivan-Hall looks at a sketch of himself, created by Mark Gilber, at Quinlan-Hall's home in Lower Sackville, N.S. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

When Margaret looks at the squiggles that have turned into her portrait, she notices a down-turned mouth and sorrowful eyes.

She notices the same in her husband, and that the disease has made him look older.

"I thought when I looked at them, you know, I need to do more things to make me smile," she said. "And also that I needed more help."

Margaret Quinlivan-Hall hold up Mark Gilbert's portrait of her, at her home in Lower Sackville, N.S. (Mary-Catherine McIntosh/CBC)

When Mark reflects on the portraits of his dying mother, he said he's grateful for how it's allowed him and his father to speak more about her, and grieve her death.

"It's taken me a great deal of time to then realize … how pictures are able to speak to people about these kind of challenging times," he said. "And I'm still learning."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Halifax network producer Mary-Catherine McIntosh.


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