In memory of lost memories

In memory of lost memories

Renee Finlay
One More Thing

What would you do if your mother and all but one of her siblings were afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease?

If you are Renee Finlay of Smithfield you commemorate them and perpetuate their memory with your talent as an artist, and at the same time you utilize your work to raise awareness of the cruel disease.

Alzheimer’s, also known as senile dementia, has been especially unkind to Renee’s mother, Suzanne Cote Laflamme, and three of her four sisters and a brother. (The other sister died during an asthma attack in her 20s.)

Renee, 68, is in the midst of a project to memorialize Suzanne and her brother and sisters which she calls “a portrait of my mom.” When the resulting paintings are exhibited at Greenville Public Library in November and December, viewers of the finished works will not see a likeness of Suzanne, though. Instead they will see 12 different pastel paintings that, taken together, constitute what Finlay describes as a symbolic portrait of her mother. It includes all of her five siblings.

She explains that a symbolic portrait is formed by painting representative items that have meaning in the context of the subject’s life. It might be made up of articles that are realistically portrayed on one or more canvases, she says, offering the example of a collection of fishing equipment and other objects special to the person being depicted to convey the essence of a fisherman.

In this instance, however, Renee has chosen to create abstract pieces that are based on molecules and brain cells affected by Alzheimer’s disease. She has distorted the size and shape of the images to parallel the distortion wrought on brain tissue by the disease. The individual pieces may be hung with any side up, denoting the disorientation that accompanies the condition.

“There is no top or bottom with Alzheimer’s,” she comments.

Each painting has a dominant color randomly associated with it. The colors are drawn from the essential 12 color wheel used by artists and designers. Each painting also is assigned a musical note at random, reflecting the chance nature of the disease. The notes have been selected based on Arnold Schoenberg’s 12 tone serial scheme for composing musical works.

Renee’s nephew, Antonio Forte, has used the notes to write a piece called “Lamentation for Suzanne.” Her niece, Marie Forte, who teaches music at Bellingham High School in Massachusetts, where Renee taught art for 40 years, retiring 10 years ago, developed the pairing of the Schoenberg scale and art work during a joint program with her aunt there. It was called “See the Music, Hear the Painting.”

Combining the various disciplines in her upcoming show, Renee, who is married to Dennis Finlay, the retired town manager, explains that she meant to parallel the complex nature of Alzheimer’s disease as well as the multiple components inherent in its progression. She has seven siblings herself, and she has involved a number of relatives in the development of the exhibition. Recently, she added bits of hair from family members to give a tangled texture to the paintings’ surfaces, and also to include some of the same DNA that they share with her mother. The tangles also are intended to symbolize the tangled nature of brain cells affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

In addition to the paintings and musical composition, Renee is inviting poets to write poems in response to the art. State poet laureate Tina Cane is among them. The show’s opening is planned to be a multi-media event employing art, music, and poetry.

“The collaboration is very important to me,” she says as she explains the overall concept for the show, its depth and complexity becoming increasingly apparent as she talks.

Asked if she conceived of the show with its intricate parts and participation of family members needing to be carefully coordinated as a way to test her own capabilities and whether she was concerned about her own susceptibility to memory loss, she deflects the question at first.

“In addition to all the varied interests and talents in the family, the prevalence of artists, musicians, and people serving the country, the genetic karma also seems to include a prevalence of the disease. It’s more than a coincidence. We think there’s a connection. I wanted to study it and document it,” she declares.

“It’s on my mind, but I don’t let it be all-consuming. I don’t want to identify myself with it, but I don’t want to deny it either.” Ultimately, she says, “I won’t be surprised if I have a diagnosis. I just try to live in the present.”

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Bottom Lines

Responses to my Aug. 8 column on the need for community arts groups: Interestingly there were no responses from Smithfield, but Robert H. Franzblau from Scituate wrote: “I’ve lived in Rhode Island for 22 years, having moved here from the Midwest, and I often wished there were more outdoor musical performance spaces.

I conducted the band at Rhode Island College for 21 years, and I am currently the conductor of the Rhode Island Wind Ensemble, a community band of 50. If you’re looking for someone to help in this effort, please let me know. I would absolutely love to see a large outdoor music shell in Rhode Island.”

Maggie Fennessey of Foster wrote: “Good article. Hope it encourages Smithfield to step up its arts programs!”