“She opened the piano, cautious, like it was a coffin, and held herself against it for ten minutes, searching the keys for an echo of Chopin or a sign of life.”
— “An Echo of Chopin,” by Henry Anker
Music, it’s said, is the last memory to go.
And so it seemed for Sylvia Anker.
Her grandson, Henry, recalls her resting in a chair in his parents’ house, dementia having robbed her of so much, but still able to recite the lyrics, hum the melody of a song, “even though she couldn’t remember my name.”
She would stand and make her way over to the piano, which she had never played, but her son had.
“She would just stare at it,” Henry said. “I learned that one of the last memories to go is music, and I thought that was so beautiful.”
It also inspired the defining piece of art in a collection he created about his grandmother and her final months living with his family in Davis.
The piece, “An Echo of Chopin,” was recently selected to represent the 3rd Congressional District in the annual congressional art competition, the first time in 10 years that a Davis High School student’s artwork was chosen.
Since 1982, the competition has recognized artistic talent in each congressional district, with more than 650,000 students having participated over the years. Students submit artwork to their representative’s office — in Anker’s case, Rep. John Garamendi’s office — where a panel of district artists then selects a winning entry.
Anker’s winning piece is on display outside the Board of Supervisors’ chambers in the Yolo County Administration Building, 625 Court St. in Woodland, where it will stay until the end of the month, before being taken to Washington, D.C., to be displayed for a year at the U.S. Capitol.
“An Echo of Chopin” actually has spent a good deal of time on public display already. The whole series about Anker’s grandmother, “While Age Comes On,” was part of the show at Gallery 625 in Woodland in March.
The collection grew out of the time Anker spent with his grandmother until her death a year ago.
“I took care of her a lot and sketched her, wrote poems and journal entries about her,” said the DHS senior. “I talked to her a lot and sometimes she could remember things and sometimes she couldn’t. I got worried that people wouldn’t remember everything she said.”
So he captured what he could in photos, drawings and words. The end result reveals what many have found caring for a loved one in the final stages of life — how the whole world seems to shrink down to this one house, one room, one family.
“It felt like a very isolating experience,” Anker recalled. “An experience that usually stays within the family.”
But it turned out that what seemed so personal to him was in many ways universal. He used the collection first in his Advanced Placement art portfolio at Davis High before submitting the series for the “Generations in Artistry” show in Woodland. It was there, at the show’s opening, that he learned just how universal his experience was.
At the reception, visitors would approach him time and again to tell him just how well he had captured what they had gone through with loved ones.
The painting showing his grandmother with her hand to her forehead, “Trying to Remember,” people said, showed the same gesture their mothers or fathers had used.
“An Eternity of Chocolate Ice Cream,” describing the period in which Sylvia Anker would eat only that, was another.
“Four different people came up to me at the show and said they had someone who also only ate chocolate ice cream,” Anker said. “It felt very personal, and then people would come and tell me it was universal. It took me by surprise.”
It is, of course, still personal. Anker finished the series shortly before his grandmother died and realized later that he had sort of painted his way through his grief, thinking about her all the time while he worked.
Although he feels attached to all of the pieces in the series, he chose the piano piece as his congressional art competition submission because, he said, “it seemed like a defining piece to me… a contemplation of mortality.”
He expressed some surprise that the piece was chosen.
“All of the things I thought they might not like, are what this series is about.”
But they liked it. So much so that not only was the piano piece chosen to represent the congressional district, the chocolate ice cream piece is now hanging in Garamendi’s district office, Anker said.
And he’s received offers for other pieces from art dealers.
“It’s odd letting them go,” he admitted, “even though I know it’s what one does. It felt professional, though, what I should be doing. And my grandmother would be totally excited about it.”
There is a lot of letting go ahead for Anker.
He’s been working for many years with local artists and teachers as he’s been mastering his craft. He works in mixed media, using everything from India ink and acrylics to charcoal, digital images and more.
He started working with Davis artist Jed Alexander several years ago “just for fun,” taking a weekly one-hour lesson. Then he grew more serious. He counts DHS art teachers Ted Fontaine and Lynette Diem, as well as Davis Art Center instructors Bob Armstrong and Heidi Bekebrede as invaluable influences.
“I think of them like friends,” he said.
And Alexander, Anker added, “got me to be the person I am and taught me everything I know how to do.”
Anker will be taking all that knowledge and talent to UCLA in the fall, where he joins an illustrious art department.
“I wasn’t expecting to get in,” he said. “I’m really thrilled.”
First, though, he’ll head to Washington, D.C., with the other congressional art competition winners, to see his his work of art, capturing his grandmother, hanging in the U.S. Capitol.
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy