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An interview with James Murray-White and his touching film of his mother who has Alzheimer's disease. Part One

Posted Mar 06 2014 7:32pm

JMW 1 The Context

First I wrote to James...
"Very sorry to hear about your mum. It's such a journey, dementia, and I hope there'll be an opportunity to talk about it some more sometime. It's wonderful for her that you are there to support her. As to the film, yep, got it. Shibley has a mention of me in his book. I'll send you some questions.
Thanks again and very best wishes to you both."

Thinking that his fulsome reply deserves a proper airing, it's now divided into two parts.

Her's the first...

1    Thinking about your childhood, could you describe an image of your mother which brings back happy memories? Where is she in the memory? What is she doing? What is she wearing? How do you see her face? Where are you in the memory?

JM-W"The memory that comes immediately to mind is that of my mum in our house, working in her pottery studio at the side. We lived in a village outside Cambridge, which remains in my mind as an idyllic time, a childhood of playing in fields and streams and the small communality of village life.

Mum’s studio was where she retreated to pot, and was fully equipped with a wheel and a small kiln. She was always at the centre of it, I remember. It was very well organised, with clay and various glazes within easy reach. She is wearing a green floral pattern dress, with a pottery apron over it. Mum looks very happy. I remember always thinking that she was happy, although that may be looking with rose-tinted glasses at was generally a very happy childhood for me.

She had gone through a divorce, and there were periods of depression a little later. She is very physically active and present in the memory, and of course as she was the mum. My parents divorced when I was 7 years old and I stayed with mum. My elder brother left a few years later, so there was just me and mum in the house for a long part of my childhood. She was the natural focus or mainstay of the household, – including dogs – needing our attention. The studio became a walkthrough to the kitchen and the garage and carport, and eventually a dumping ground for all our stuff. I remember bringing home the school’s gerbils for a while and they took up residence in the studio!

So it is not a very time-specific memory, more of a floating image of her and me and our family life and my childhood suspended somewhere within it. A very happy, busy and exploratory time, with mum raising us and teaching, as well as producing her own pottery and artwork.

2     When she was working, which of your mother's qualities did you most admire?


"Mum was clearly a very good teacher and to this day I hear how well respected she was in the profession locally. When we lived in the village, she taught at a special school for (the phrase at the time) ‘maladjusted’ boys. She set up a specially-equipped art/pottery room, and clearly it was a piece of heaven for many of the boys to have a woman teacher (the school was mostly male teachers, with an emphasis on physical skills, and I think the deputy head was a fitness fanatic who loved to get everyone outside as much as possible) and to be able to play with big slabs of clay for long periods of time.

JMW2 I went there a lot, after school etc and remember seeing boys slightly older than me absorbed silently in producing things. I think it was mum’s great skill to guide them through the creative process, right to cups and plates and useable objects as well as ‘art’. I think there is a still image in the film of some boys in her artroom, engaged with the wonderful world of wet sloppy clay, making marks in it, turning on the wheel, and eventually firing it to anticipate how it would finally turn out!

So it was her ability to communicate the creative process, and inspire those she taught and came into contact with, that I saw, and became a big part of me, as well as how I identified my mum out in the world.

She went on to teach at many schools across Cambridgeshire – from this boys ‘special’ school through to a private convent school for girls (were her art room backed on to Cambridge’s glorious botanic gardens, and gave access to the wonderful world of plants – and I just made a film for the gardens, which takes my creativity full circle, thanks to mum : my film called ‘Infestations’ on ) and was very respected. And this was in addition to producing pottery as an artist in her own right, exhibiting and selling locally too. Many of her friends were artists of all types, so this exposure to creativity was hugely inspiring, and I remember that it kept her highly engaged with life, with people, and the process of creativity itself.

3     How has your mother's creativity affected her experience of dementia?


"That’s an interesting question. The physical legacy of mum being a potter for about 40 odd years is that she still has a very strong grip! Sometimes when she holds me hand or grips a finger it is really strong and I have to explain that it is too tight. I often hear yelps from the carers when they help to lead her to the bathroom or to bed, & I know mum has gripped too hard! But I see it as an outward sign of her creativity and strong life force, despite aphasia in her verbal communication, and often weary face and eyes.


The pottery making has long gone, and despite a house full of her pots (some of which I’ve been giving away, hiding away or using in the garden), she doesn’t seem to want to shape and mould things anymore. I do put her pots in her hands sometimes to see how she might respond and if there might be a physical memory linked to the pots creation, but I haven’t seen a flicker of specific remembering. On a friend's suggestion, I bought some play dough last year as an experiment, and a carer and I tried to shape it with mum, but after 10 minutes we realised some had been eaten, and I was too concerned about this to continue. Perhaps sometime we will try this again, with closer supervision!

Living as we do in Cambridge (I’ve not long moved back to care for her, after living in Bristol, Jerusalem, Donegal, Ulan Bator, Edinburgh and Hull over 20 plus years), there are a few creative opportunities for those living with dementia and their carers to participate in.

A mainstay of mum’s weekly routine for many years was a regular art class run by the Alzheimer’s Society. She and her partner John attended and loved it. Mum painted and drew and engaged well with the process of creating again; and with the teachers and the group. I’m frustrated that due to other financial priorities the AS closed this group. Campaigning and research are important, but the social and creative needs of those living with dementia should be a priority. I know many people locally miss this group.

Ironically I heard that one of the local hospitals has a fully equipped pottery studio set up for those with dementia, so when I was nearby (and had mum in the car) I called in and explained that mum had been a potter for 40 years, and could she come sometime and join a class – but maddeningly due to health and safety and age concerns, this wasn’t possible! It sounds kafkaesque doesn’t it! I should re-enact that on camera!

JMW 4 I have recently made contact with a highly regarded Cambridge Neuroscientist who mid-life has turned to pottery as his creative outlet. He invited me to see his garden studio and instantly I was transported to the world of throwing clay, slips and glazes. I’m negotiating with him to make a short film about him and his pioneering research in dementia both here and in Australia, and his passion for pots. I think it will be a great piece, marrying the cell research with the physical creativity, and this is part of a wider project I’m embarked upon as filmmaker in residence within the Cambridge Dementia Research Network, where I get hands-on exposure to the cutting edge research going on here, and permission to film it and communicate it to the world.

But back to mum and her creative journey with dementia, she has participated for several years in a local choir, run by the inspirational Edye Hoffman and her NGO Dementia Compass . The choir is made up of those with dementia and those without, is led by a highly professional (and strict!) Cambridge choirmaster, meets on a termly basis, working towards a concert held every 6/7 weeks. It is a great social and stimulating musical coming together, and though able to follow the words less these days, mum loves to participate and interact in whatever way she can.

Last year there was also a group called ‘dancing with dementia’ started up for a term, by a wonderful dance teacher called Filipa

 Filipa and I worked together as artists on a dementia and arts project many years ago in Cambridge (before mum was diagnosed) and it's been great to re-connect and see how she uses dance to inspire and get those diagnosed physically communicating and moving. It has been great to see mum come back from that weekly class energized and happy. I recently heard they have support to continue it & know mum will love being back in that group with it’s great energy and care. More information and a short film on Filipa’s website above.

All in all, I’m looking at mum’s later years from diagnosis onwards, as a creative journey with dementia. She spent 40 plus years practicing creativity through producing art and inspiring others; now it is about living well and living creatively. She inspires me, as a whole person, with my memory of her as mum to me, and what I know of her life before I was born (she was adopted and much of her early life is still a little unclear, as perhaps I hint at in the film), and I’m honoured and humbled to be continuing this journey at this later stage with her.

'Keeping Mum' master feb.2012  


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