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Arts 4 Alzheimers class has sketchbooks in nationally touring exhibit

Participants in Tania Becker's Art 4 Alzheimers class are getting "immortalized" in a 10,000-book exhibit stopping Friday and Saturday in Castleberry Hill.

Almost 10,000 artist's sketchbooks will be on display at the Granite Room in Castleberry Hill this weekend as part of The Sketchbook Tour, a traveling exhibit featuring artists from around the world.

Thirty-five of those sketchbooks are from participants in the weekly Art 4 Alzheimers class at Dunwoody's Spruill Center for the Arts.

One of these 35 sketchbooks is the work of Michele Wright, a Sandy Springs resident diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, which is similar to Alzheimer's. Decades ago, she studied fashion illustration at Florida State University, then got hired in the art departments of an advertising agency and Rich's Department Store. She also taught art to elementary-age children in Atlanta Public Schools.

"She has a God-given gift with art," said Roy Wright, her husband and caretaker. Before Michele started attending Art 4 Alzheimers, she took a class at the Chastain Art Center. But it was difficult for her to make art with people who didn't share her condition. "She can't do what she could do in the past. She felt uncomfortable."

She's blossomed at Art 4 Alzheimers, he said. They both worked on sketchbooks as part of the class, and it turned out to be therapeutic experience that brought them closer.

"I'm not artistic. I can draw stick figures. Most of what I did was my life with her. I sort of went back to our start," he said. He got out baby photos of their two sons, now in their 30s, and photos of Michele teaching them as toddlers to paint. The images jogged her memory, too.

"It allowed me to focus on just how important my wife is to me," he said.

Tania Becker started Art 4 Alzheimers in 2008 as a free creative outlet for people with Alzheimer's and similar diseases. It's run completely by volunteers, Becker included. Art helps people access memories, and the sketchbooks -- made by family members and patients alike -- creates a legacy and a sense of peace.

"They could write, collage. They could do anything they wanted. There's beautiful poetry in some of them," she said.

Dunwoody councilman Danny Ross, who brings his aunt Nell D'Amico to Arts 4 Alzheimers, helped turn one of these sketchbooks, made by Scott Martin, into a video with "Autumn Leaves" as the soundtrack. It explains Alzheimer's from the perspective of a person with the disease.

Becker submitted the sketchbooks from Arts 4 Alzheimers to The Sketchbook Project in January. The project is open to all artists, from middle school drawing students to professionals. After the exhibit finishes its tour, the thousands of sketchbooks will be permanently housed at The Brooklyn Art Library in New York and available for public viewing.

"What a wonderful way to immortalize the people in my class," Becker said.

The Sketchbook Project is at The Granite Room, 211 Peters St., this Friday, April 8, from 6 to 11 p.m. (in conjunction with Castleberry Hill's 2nd Friday Art Stroll) and on Saturday, April 9, from noon to 5 p.m.

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