How one artist transformed tragedy into art

Dementia stole my happy memories of summer

By Nick Hawks

The room is dark. Closelines carrying old burnt photographs zig and zag across the black walls. Beneath them, an old fire pit and a plastic folding chair sit on top of a patch of synthetic grass.  Grey shadowy figures scroll by on the wall to the front of the room, brought to life by a projector, the only semblance of light in the small, closed off room in the The Galleries at Cleveland State University. Shadows projected from the photographs dance on the wall.  

This is a memory. Dad is out back grilling hot dogs, sitting in his cheap lawn chair. He asks you to grab him a beer, in return, he’ll let you sip the foam off the top when mom isn’t looking. You gleefully accept, even though you can’t stand the taste of beer. In the background, Bruce Springsteen songs are fueling your summer anthem. These are the times that stick with you long after they end, especially when a loved one falls ill. That’s what happened to Heather Molecke. 

Molecke, a Cleveland State graduate with a degree in sculpture, was asked to contribute a piece for The Galleries as part of their Recent Alumni Exhibition and she found herself unsure of what to do. She lives in Louisiana, sticking around after getting her master’s degree, and hauling all of her work back to Cleveland would be difficult. However, when she got back to Cleveland, her father became very ill.  

“He took a fall at rehab, they said he’d never walk again,” Molecke said. “He’d had dementia for ten years. When they told him he wasn’t returning home, it sped up real fast.”

He started mistaking Molecke for his sister, who’d passed away five years earlier. Molecke ended up having to move both of her parents into assisted living at the same time, moving them out of the house that they’d shared for more than forty years. 

Until that point, Molecke had worked more politically, particularly motivated by police shootings that occurred near where she grew up in Cleveland.  She specifically sites the time six Cleveland Police Department officers fired 137 shots at a car and killed two African American men, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. 

However, after going through emotional turmoil dealing with her parents, politics no longer seemed relevant to Molecke. 

“Everything I brought from my thesis, it didn’t fit anymore,” Morcke said.

Going through her parents’ house, she went through numerous photo albums and became inspired to preserve them in the form of art.

She dipped the photos into a chemical solution in order to give them a bubbling texture and hung them to dry on a clothesline. She liked the way that it resembled laundry hanging up in a backyard, which made her think of backyard barbeques. She decided she would make this her project for the art gallery, despite the vulnerability it would cause her. 

“I’ve had to work through it,” Molecke said. “I’ve had to let go of caring about what other people think.”

She purchased a grill from Craigslist and found a folding chair in the garbage. She painted them black and white to give them, “more of a graphic novel feel.” 

She wanted to give the photos burnt and charred edges, so while at Louisiana State, where she is now a sculpture professor, she took them outside to burn them, causing some people to question her.

“I got a little bit of criticism,” Molecke said. “People would walk by and say, ‘Why are you destroying these photos?’ I’d turn to them and say, ‘I’m not destroying them, I’m elevating them into a piece of art.’”

She called the piece Dementia Stole My Happy Memories of Summer

“I examine the erasing of time and the holes in reality,” she says in her Artist Statement, which is found right outside the piece. 

Despite being overwhelmed going through boxes upon boxes of photo albums, she is ultimately grateful to have had the photos.

“Now we have phones and in the future, these boxes of pictures will be obsolete,” she said. “Everything will be on a jump drive. Which is what we’ll pass down to them.” 

She laughs at the absurdity of passing down an entire life’s work on a tiny flash drive, pictures of important family gatherings like birthday parties and graduations mixed in with pictures of half-eaten bagels and bathroom mirror selfies. 

Photos of family gatherings can be seen on the display at the gallery. The faded, burnt photos tell the story of a loving family. After hiding away for decades in cardboard boxes, they now serve a higher purpose, on display in the form of art.  

Back at the room in The Gallery, a shadowy figure enters the screen from the left. It pauses and turns towards the projector, and then does something it must do thousands of times a day on an endless loop. It vanishes.