February 17, 2022

Battling Dementia, One Stitch at a Time

Battling Dementia, One Stitch at a Time
Aleshicheva and her creations. Instagram, #girl_from_1938.

On her Instagram account @girl_from_1938, Yulia Aleshicheva often appears sitting in her chair, peering at the camera sternly over her eyeglasses. Aleshicheva is a Russian pensioner living outside St. Petersburg and suffering from dementia, but she has amassed nearly 16,000 followers by winning people's hearts with her unconventional art: embroidered cats, nudes, and other characters. The account is managed by her grandson Yan, who wants to inspire people with his grandma's spirit and imagination. 

Yan told his grandmother's fascinating story to the wonderful folks at @kurok_moscow (check them out!), and we received permission to publish the English version below. Click on the images to be directed to the original Instagram feed, where they all originated.

Yulia Aleshicheva embroidering in her garden

My grandma, Yulia Aleshicheva, was born in the village of Spirovo, in Tver Oblast, in a family with many children. Her father descended from aristocratic roots. He went to fight during World War II and was missing in action for a long time. The Soviet government decided that he defected to the Nazis, so my grandmother’s family was branded “enemies of the people” and everything was taken away. For three or five months they starved, and she had to beg for food with her sisters because they were no longer getting bread rations. After a while, the body of her father was found, the “enemies of the people” label was lifted, and they were rehabilitated and given rations again.

Yulia's family
Childhood picture of Aleshicheva with her family: her mother Anna Barkova and five siblings. 13-year-old Aleshicheva is standing above her mother.

After school, my grandma studied in a forestry institute in Estonia. She was sent to work in Karelia as an operator (диспетчер). She spent most of her life between 1958 and 2018 in Karelia. The atmosphere in the facility wasn’t terribly artistic, and my grandma was always interested in different experiences, so she read a lot. One day the house where she lived for many years burned down, and she lost her favorite pets, a cat and a dog. So she was forced to move to a one-bedroom flat, and out of boredom took up embroidery. What else was there to do? She no longer had her favorite country house; only the foundation remained. So she sat in the flat and embroidered images she saw on magazine cutouts calendars and other knick-knacks. Due to stress, her short-term memory started failing. After she moved to St. Petersburg, she was diagnosed with "vascular dementia."

Beatrix as embroidery
Aleshicheva's portrait of Princess Beatrix of Netherlands

If you have seen the latest film starring Anthony Hopkins, The Father, you know more or less how the world looks to a person with dementia. Objects disappear and suddenly appear, strangers enter your home calling themselves your relatives, familiar surroundings constantly morph, and you don’t understand where you are. It’s hell. Right now grandma remembers times from long ago quite well but she doesn’t recall what happened yesterday or even two minutes ago. She forgets names and mixes people up. I can be her grandson one minute and some acquaintance from her youth the next.

Aleshicheva can draw inspiration from classic paintings or magazine photos.
Here: Venus Verticordia. Original by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1968)

If you spend a long time with her, then she begins to remember you. But in a moment something can switch in her brain and she can ask “Who is your mother?” even as my mother is sitting right there.

My grandma has two daughters. The eldest is in Karelia, and the youngest, my mom, lives with her at a dacha near St. Petersburg. My grandma periodically forgets my mom; she thinks it’s a social worker visiting. Her mind is constantly playing tricks. If she goes outside alone, she will immediately forget from where she has come and won’t be able to return. She won’t remember what her house looks like; she is completely disoriented in space and time. A familiar interior helps her memory, and the fine motor skills she uses to embroider help her focus and distract her from unpleasant thoughts. When she’s embroidering, she is much calmer, but when she is not, she is overcome with anxiety, common in people with dementia. She thinks something has been stolen from her and that everybody is out to trick her.

Right now grandma is living in the time when her mother was alive. She constantly says, “I need to call Mom,” even though her mom passed away in 1991. Recently she wrote a letter to her mother, telling her about her embroidering and how she passes the time, and said at the end that she will be waiting for a response. We don’t tell her that the person she is writing to is not alive, why would we want to upset her? Tomorrow she is going to forget and everything will repeat again. She lives in a world where her mother is alive, she is living in Karelia in her house, and many traumatic events have not yet happened. My mother and I have decided that despite her illness, we are not going to put grandma in a home. My mother is living with her permanently, and when she leaves for vacation, I help.

"Russian Venus in the bathhouse"

When I was little, grandma Yulia was very strict, and I kept my distance. I liked my other grandma better. But I started spending more time with her after we brought her to St. Petersburg. And then I saw what she was embroidering. It was a cross-stitched “Russian Venus” by Kustodiyev. And it was just one of her many creations. So I thought that I should start a site or a Vkontakte group and post her works there. In the end, I chose Instagram, because that’s the platform I am often on. In April 2019 I started a personal account for my grandma. I thought about what to call it for a long time: I wanted the name to reflect her age, but also that her works look a bit like children’s drawings. I came across Madonna’s video “What It Feels Like for a Girl,” where she is driving around while a very elderly lady sits next to her, as if she has dementia. So I called the account @girl_from_1938 and started adding photos of her works, and then word spread.

"A Girl in the Garden of Eden" (2018)

Once, I showed grandma’s work to my friend and his girlfriend. They were enthralled and told their friend, who is an embroiderer with 80,000 followers. When this friend made a post about my grandma, she had her first 200 or 300 followers. After that, a magazine wrote about us. And since then, her popularity has been increasing. I’d like more people to see my grandma’s works. She has had several exhibits already, including abroad, in Serbia, Latvia, and France. There were several exhibits in St. Petersburg; the last one was in Moscow last year in the Museum of Naive Art. Her art is always very well received, and she gets many letters and cards after every exhibit. She has a very original approach to embroidery, and she picks unusual subjects and colors.

"Three Unmarried Girls Return Home after a Disco"

She has an innate sense of color, and she gets ideas from everyday life. She sees something in a book or magazine and gets inspired. Once she made a portrait of the Spice Girls that she saw on an old poster. But she’s actually certain that these are her old girlfriends from Karelia. I buy art books for her to spark her imagination. She flicks through them, and she watches the “Kultura” channel. We don’t put any other channels on because they would stress her out.

"Spice Girls"

My grandma doesn’t know that she’s popular, that there are exhibits with her works. That is to say, she doesn’t remember. I told her of course, but she forgets after a couple of hours. Every time is like the first time. Sometimes journalists come and film her; she relishes the attention when she gets letters or sees stories about her in the paper – each time she rereads them and wonders how this is possible, why would anybody write about her? What has she done that was special? That her embroidery is so banal, that everybody can do this.

An advertisement for Aleshicheva's exhibit in France

Often we get requests to purchase grandma’s work, but we don’t sell them. My goal is different: to show her art to as many people as possible. And if they end up in private hands, it will be difficult to get those works for public exhibits. If we sold everything, nobody would find out about this artist. But because these requests are so numerous, we created a line of merchandise, T-shirts, hoodies, and cards. You can buy these and support the artist. This is clothing for people with a sense of humor.

"The Day When the Cat Named Circle Realized He Stopped Feeling His Favorite Smells"

My grandma’s works defy age or other constraints. She has no taboos and can embroider nudes. I wanted to show that you can be an artist at any age and despite illness. Art helps like therapy. You can and should do what you want. Grandma Yulia does this and it helps her live day today. People with dementia have difficulties finding a hobby; most often they just sit and do nothing. So it’s great that she has this hobby and she is into it without thinking whether somebody will like it or not. She can be working on one piece for a month and finish another in just five days; it all depends on her inspiration.

"Two Cats and the Dog"

Pensioners are in a difficult situation in Russia. My grandma’s age is called "the age of living out your life" (возраст дожития). The stereotype is that at this age the person just passes the time that’s left and is not good for anything. I want to show that at any age you should not give up. You can become a star of contemporary art.

Aleshicheva at home


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