Call it what you will but this story is nothing short of miraculous.
Dementia and Alzheimer’s related illnesses are growing rapidly. Worldwide estimates vary between 18 million and 30 million people in the world suffering from some form of these illnesses, depending on which website you consult. The numbers may be askew, as they are always increasing, and some cases go unreported. The fact is people are silently suffering all around us. Someone you know or someone you love may be afflicted with one or more of these conditions. This story is no exception.
It has been nearly ten years when my friend Donald Louis Booker quit his full-time art career. Having been in the Baltimore art circuit as “DoLoBo” for nearly thirty years, he once made a living on providing everything from custom paintings to jewelry to private clients. He stated that he was going to be giving full time care to his elderly parents and left his clients mystified. There was however, a little more to the story.
Recently DoLoBo has come forth and explained that his stepfather had been diagnosed and suffering for the past decade from on-again, off-again spells of dementia and mild Alzheimer’s. Most of the family was unaware, and it wasn’t something that made dinner conversation. Old Man Walters, (also known as Joseph P. Walters, Sr, of Parkville, Maryland) is now 88 years old. He is a Veteran of World War II and spent his life working for (and retiring from) the United States Postal Service.
Back in the ’70s, a much younger Joseph Walters filled his days by delivering mail. He rushed home from his route to craft wooden or tin hand painted birdhouses which he sold on weekends at art shows. Soon he moved to more detailed things. He began crafting small paper houses and buildings out of junk or trash cardboard.
DoLoBo describes, “These tiny houses would be ordered by the people who put on local train garden holiday displays. Word got around and soon he was creating these houses every night in order to fill orders for the holidays. He did everything from schools to churches. The windows would be made of plastic from old food packages and look just like glass. hese tiny sculptures would range in size from N to HO scale, and they were really something. Made mostly of cardboard or used food packages, things we would otherwise have thrown out back then. To see them turn into very detailed houses and churches was amazing.” (It appears Old Man Walters was an Eco-Artist before the green movement was even recognized.)
The only evidence that survives at the Walters’ residence of his previous artwork are nearly four decades of falling down birdhouses around the yard and one custom mailbox (keenly resembling a mail truck.) Although a reminder of more creative and happier days, they are filled with birds who appreciate of the rent free housing and far less critical of their condition.
The Old Man Walters of today normally stays to himself in a bedroom, watching television and being well cared for. He has the support and love of his family. Sometimes though, he doesn’t know who they are, or what day it is. DoLoBo reports, “You just have to take things day by day. It’s trying at times when you are dealing with this sort of thing, but we all do our best to make him comfortable.”
One day Old Man Walters requested art supplies and the family was puzzled. Years had passed without any mention of the art. More requests came with every medicine call, or meal delivery. DoLoBo was soon bringing everything from paper, scissors, paints, and glue to him. Next call was for cookie boxes, cereal boxes, paper,or other soon-to-be-trash cellophane items. Old Man Walters was working like mad, and had converted his bed into a full fledged art studio. “I didn’t know what to think. It was really a shock to the whole family.see this thing materialze,” Dolobo explained.
Several weeks of hard working, piece by piece, then behold the Cardboard Church!
An astonishing two foot long and nearly as tall painted and hand assembled House of Worship made from recycled cardboard and trash paper. Every angle shows incredible detail, with front and back entrances. Old Man Walters carefully cut, glued, taped and painted every piece together. Although much larger (nearly a foot wide) than his tiny houses of earlier years, it appears his actual technique of making such sculptures was never lost. In his mind, a memory embedded in him, somewhere in his brain cells, forever. Never forgotten, just misplaced.
DoLoBo says, “I’m just so glad he’s being creative. The actual making of the art seems to calm him and make him happy. I’ve read studies where they say that art heals and is alternative therapy in some patients. I never could believe it but it’s true in this case. It’s almost like he remembers a church he made forty years ago, so he’s making one larger than life now as if to say, ‘I’m healing, I’m living.’ I really believe that art is keeping him alive and giving him a reason to look forward to each new day. Art has somehow found and reactivated the parts of his mind that remember decades ago, when in all actuality he can’t remember what he had for dinner last week. I don’t know if this is a miracle but I look at this church and I think that is proof positive. I’m not a doctor. I just know that art is making him act like Dad again. This is a healing therapy. I had to share this in hopes others can learn and benefit from this. “
As an artist myself I can’t think of a better way to pass the day. They say the mind works in mysterious ways. I look upon the cardboard church and wonder aloud, to Old Man Walters, is this a memory from yesteryear, or some vision of tomorrow?
DoLoBo reports that Old Man Walters is still creating and sending him on supply runs. He has made several houses to date, but the family favorite remains the Cardboard Church.