"Images of Age," drawings by Michael Jacques, through April 22 at The Athenaeum, 201 Prince St., Alexandria, and at Gallery 4, 115 S. Columbus St., Alexandria, through May 8.
Michael Jacques is an artist who brings a sense of horror to his pen-and-ink drawings. It is the realism of life on the edge of death.
Jacques, a printmaker and professor at Emmanuel College in Boston, found that realism at the nursing home where his grandfather moved in the 1970s to live out the end of his life. Jacques took his artist eye to the home, and at first, that eye only accentuated his sense of horror at the man his grandfather had become.
"I felt like he was betraying me," Jacques last told a visitor to his exhibition at the Athenaeum in Alexandria. "He was my mentor, a soccer player from Ireland who taught me all the tricks of the game. And here he was, weak, frail, drooling."
Jacques continued his visits, but refused to speak to the old man. "My wife got mad at me," he says, and encouraged him to work through his feelings in pen and ink.
To do that, Jacques began going every day to two England nursing homes.
The record of those visits is a suit of drawings and commentaries that lend dignity to mortality and serenity to life's far edge.
Consider Addie, an elderly resident who had lived at one of the homes since she was 17. Jacques drew her as she sat, tied into her chair, with little Orphan Annie eyes and a vacant stare. He wondered what she thought about all day for all those years.
"I'm so lucky," she finally told him. "I'm able to read, smell the grass and flowers, hear the birds sing, and watch the clouds float over the beautiful colored mountain."
And there was Betty. Unable to speak, she sat in her chair with an Ouija board on her lap, spelling out her thoughts.
Jacques worked gingerly with the residents, gaining their trust and drawing out their feelings in conversations he compares with a train: "At first things would come slowly, and soon they'd be going at 60 miles an hour."
One resident he worked hard to capture on paper was Annie, an arthritic victim of encephalitis with a protruding tongue and a quick wit. She called Jacques a "dummy," a comment he heard with crystal clarity, and then laughed when he was unable to decipher the rest of her conversation.
Jacques asked repeatedly if he could draw her portrait, but her vanity rebelled; she did not want him to draw her "ugly" hands. He was fascinated with those hands -- grotesque, crippled stumps that "looked so painful. I wanted to know what it felt like to have that happen to your hands. But how do you ask someone a question like that?"
Annie eventually agreed to the portrait but only after carefulling arranging her hands to their best advatage. The result is brutal, and captures Jacques' message about the elderly he saw: "If you could get rid of their battered bodies, you would find them healthy and alive as you and I. But they are imprisoned in these shells."
There is an overshelming sense of captivity in these drawings, and Jacques freely refers to the nursing homes he draw as "prisons -- they're nice prisons. The nurses are very nice, very kind, but the patients lose all sense of dignity."
Perhaps not all. One of the bravest portraits is of an elegant, elderly woman eating soup, sitting ladylike at a table adorned with flowers.
Then there is the cancer victim, the most difficult piece in the suite and one that The Athenaeum gallery wisely hides from initial viewing. This is a woman whose nose is literally deterioriating from cancer, whose mouth stands agape for breathing, who is dying before your eyes. Jacques' caption: "Every time I look at this drawing, it scares the hell out of me."
Such confrontations with mortality are commonplace in the nursing homes, and Jacques eventually decides his attitude toward his grandfather is "immature -- he kept saying he wanted to die, and I selfishly wanted him to stay, to keep being the virile, robust man he was."
Working toward a more mature attitude about death has made Jacques "like a reformed smoker. I think everyone should work this through."
Through this book, Jacques hopes to reach a wide audience, and make others aware of the needs of these elderly people.
"Without human contact," he contends, the elderly "will shirvel up and die."