Light and Shadows
Art needs contrast — a spot of white to define darkness in a painting, a sculpture of granite to capture a fleeting moment in time. Emile Birch is an artist who creates monuments. Now his time grows short as his memory dims and so the artist becomes his own final work.
By most accounts, it would appear that Emile Birch is a lucky man. He spends his days in a warm and inviting contemporary home nestled in the rolling hills of New Hampshire’s Upper Valley. If you visit him in the summer, you’ll see a lush, beautifully landscaped yard, and the screened porch out back, where you can hear birdsong and gently rustling leaves. Birch’s studio sits beside the house, which he shares with his wife, Cynthia, and toy poodle, Buddy. His adult daughters and stepchildren live on their own.
Upon meeting Birch, you notice that at 5'6" he is not a large man, but his handshake is firm and impressive — perhaps a result of the decades he has spent working as a professional sculptor. He has an open, honest face, but is a walking contradiction: He’s a man who describes himself as a loner, yet has spent a lifetime reaching out to people through art. Birch is particularly noted for his large-scale outdoor sculptures scattered throughout New Hampshire. Chances are, you’ve seen at least one of them — maybe “The Eternal Shield,” a memorial located outside the Statehouse that honors New Hampshire law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty; “Pollyanna” in Littleton, which celebrates the spirit of Littleton native and author Eleanor Hodgman Porter’s beloved character; or “Vigilance,” a tribute to firefighters in Portsmouth.
Birch’s work as a teaching artist will also no doubt be long remembered by the countless schoolchildren, hospital patients and prisoners he has patiently worked with over the years.
But in speaking with Birch, it quickly becomes apparent that, despite his decades of professional success and his serene surroundings, all is not as idyllic here as it might seem. As he approaches the age of 70, Birch finds himself in a place that millions of people across the country can relate to: He has dementia. In fact, doubly unlucky, he has two different forms of dementia — Alzheimer’s disease, and something called Lewy body dementia. At the time of this writing, doctors wouldn’t estimate how much time he has left, but the average life expectancy of someone with Lewy body is anywhere from four to eight years.
“Pollyanna” (2002) is a monument to cheerfulness, optimism and community spirit. The Littleton statue is known as “New Hampshire's most welcoming attraction.” Photo by Susan Laughlin
Say what you will about the hoity-toity art world, there is no pretense about Birch. So perhaps it is fitting that he openly discusses his struggle with dementia and the devastating prognosis he has been given. Birch believes publicly and candidly sharing his experience “is a way to be positive rather than have people think ‘poor you.’ Instead of you feeling that you’re not what you used to be, which is true,” he says, “in some ways it’s a positive thing to do.” Birch’s candor, whether he consciously realizes it or not, is also a way for him to yet again connect with people, this time as he provides an invaluable lesson about how to live, even in the face of a steadily eroding sense of identity, and knowledge of your own imminent passing.
Communication doesn’t come easily, though. At times, Birch has difficulty expressing himself, as well as comprehending what is said to him. Repeatedly when he speaks, his voice trails off as he realizes he can’t remember what he wanted to say.
The situation is heartbreaking, but likely familiar to anyone who has dementia or a loved one who suffers from dementia. Initially, when Birch was told that he had only Alzheimer’s to contend with — which would be enough to send most of us into a panicked tailspin — he was quite hopeful and expected a slow, gradual decline, with many years ahead. He underwent a series of tests, and followed his doctor’s orders to the letter, even giving up ice cream, one of his greatest simple pleasures.
But when his progressive symptoms eventually led doctors to add the Lewy body diagnosis and markedly revise their prognosis, Birch decided to ease his restrictions. He now allows himself a small amount of ice cream each day, while still religiously adhering to a consistent exercise schedule, which has been shown to benefit the brain and possibly slow the progression of dementia. He runs, bikes or walks first thing in the morning, takes medication morning and night, and signs up for innovative treatments.
Living with dementia is “complicated” and “exhausting,” Birch says. “It’s a combination [of emotions]. I’m trying to be positive even though I sometimes think that I am having a difficult time … but I focus on things I get meaning from.” The limitations that come with dementia are tough to accept, though. “Really it is very painful to hear, ‘You can’t do this’ or ‘You can’t do that,’” he says. “Or you take on things that are more complicated and think, ‘I can probably get through that,’ but it turns out to be wishful thinking.”
Not being able to drive also greatly bothers Birch. “It’s bad enough to have dementia,” he says. “But when you can’t go anywhere …” Clearly frustrated, he says, “I feel as though I’m putting people out.”
Birch, who has continued to create new sculptures through the progression of his illness, at work in his studio.
Birch acknowledges that many people his age have challenges to deal with, and sometimes he feels good about how he’s doing. But his exasperation surfaces when he describes how people who intend to be caring sometimes make him feel coddled and insulted. “When they say — Cynthia doesn’t do this — but when they say, ‘You’re sure you want to go? You sure you want to go with me? You sure? OK, if you want to. If you’re sure you want to.’ That hurts. It hurts me.”
He makes it a priority to get together with people, though, and cherishes spending time with friends and family. Doing so, he says, gives him “a really positive feeling.” On one recent day, he went on a walk with friends, “joking all the way out and all the way back …” Birch wants to say more about that day, but chokes up.
He also looks forward to the walks that he takes with Sarah, a nurse the Birches hired to spend time with him for a handful of hours each week. Her help is particularly valuable during the school year, when Cynthia works as a middle-school art teacher. Birch animatedly speaks of the days he has gone walking with Sarah, and bike riding on a nearby rail trail with one of his daughters and her husband. “It’s amazing,” he says. “People say, ‘Hi,’ and everybody’s happy. If you had a problem, they would help you. They didn’t have to help me, but three or four people would get together and fix a wheel or whatever. People become very friendly and kindhearted out in nature,” he says, “regardless of whether they know each other.”
Birch also gets an emotional boost from attending local gatherings of people who suffer from dementia, and says he would attend more groups if they were available. Participating in support groups “is very helpful,” he says. “We share things, we share ideas,” such as where to get medicine for a lower price.
People in the groups share their fears too. “A lot of people are waiting for Alzheimer’s,” Birch says. “They think, ‘Oh, my God, how am I going to pay for school? How am I going to pay for my car? What about my family?’ And it is expensive. All the medications, and every time I see a doctor, the expense.”
Most importantly, the groups provide an opportunity to connect with people, which is something that clearly delights Birch. He describes chatting recently with a fellow Alzheimer’s support group member, a man who mentioned at an earlier gathering that he makes rocking chairs. Birch hadn’t seen him for a while, so when the man showed up again at a group meeting, Birch said hello to him and asked, “‘So what are you up to now? Are you still making chairs?’ And then something happened,” Birch says, “and I never got to understand exactly what, but he was smiling. He was smiling.” As he recalls the experience, Birch breaks down. “I was just trying not to forget that he is a craftsman.”
“Vigilance” was commissioned in 2007 and unveiled in 2009. Situated in front of Portsmouth's Central Fire Station, Birch's tribute to firefighters features two 400-pound bronze figures that represent the past and the present. Photo by P.T. Sullivan
The man was touched, Birch believes, because Birch spoke with him and remembered that he made furniture. “Usually at these groups,” Birch says, “people chat, go get a cookie or whatever, and come back to sit down. And when he came back, he was more positive — he seemed more positive to me. I could see it. I mean, one minute he was by himself, and now he’s with some people. All I did was ask, ‘What are you up to?’”
That simple interaction affected how the man felt — and how Birch felt — and illustrates one of Birch’s guiding principles: He believes that one of the most important things in life is sharing with people; the moment with the man who makes rocking chairs was powerful because Birch saw that even now, as he loses his ability to communicate, he was able to spark joy in this man.
There is no escaping the future though. Birch says his neurologist encourages him to see dementia as a process, rather than focusing on fear. And in that spirit, Birch says, “I would much rather have the doctor tell me” what to expect rather than hide the truth. “I don’t mind knowing,” he says. “It’s when [people] remind me, when the conversation becomes, ‘Well, you’re going to be dying anyway.’ And then I sometimes cry. [But] I can deal with the possibility. For now, I get to get up again in the morning and I get to run and I get to eat the little bit of ice cream that I like, and I’m meeting people — and I make sculpture.”
Throughout the progression of his decline, Birch has continued to work in his studio. But what does a man who has devoted many of his working hours to memorializing others say about his own legacy? Faced with a sudden overwhelming sense of his mortality, how does he memorialize himself? Birch has chosen to spend his recent studio time making sculptures that explore themes of community; how social class and pursuit of material wealth separate us; the healing power of nature; and the hope and promise of new beginnings.
“I’ve always been immersed in work,” he says. “Lewy body helps you to focus on what you want to do and what you need to do. I’m making sculpture every day.” Art, he explains, “is connection … Art making is really you making. When you’re making it, it speaks to you.” His art these days is more stylistically simple than it once was, but he continues to explore multiple motifs within each piece.
Birch at work on one of his "trees."
Mineral hues dominate his latest series of sculptures, and contribute an earthy, natural feel. The foundation of each piece is a tree trunk, with ascending branches that support simple houses. Each of the “trees” in his sculptures are made from an actual apple tree that was in the Birch’s front yard until it died — a gift from a friend and neighbor who has since passed away.
Being diagnosed with dementia has taken Birch in a different artistic direction, he says. “Other sculptures I’ve made have been castings in bronze and things like that, but I wanted to do something that was about living in this house. I noticed that driving around, there are houses that look just like everybody else’s house, but some of those houses are falling apart. The windows are broken and the outside, the garage, was falling in.”
Birch’s latest sculptures reflect reality; some of the houses that rest on the tree branches are small, and some are bigger and positioned higher within the branches, representing wealthy people who “are looking down on others,” Birch says. One piece in the series shows houses in a circle, a sort of cul-de-sac. “I’m talking about people who have a lot of money,” he says. “That’s not an issue, but what would you do with it? What would you do with it?” Birch pauses. “The other part of it is, I’m a loner. I’m a loner. I always have been.” He looks to his wife for confirmation: “Would you say that?” he asks. Yes, she nods. “Yeah. I don’t know why,” he says. “So I don’t have any problem with people who have been successful.” They do make him question his own success, though, and whether he’s achieved enough. But too many people, he says, get wrapped up in the pursuit of money and material success, while in the end, they can be left with a big house that has broken windows.
In 2006 Birch collaborated with students — he created kinetic (moving) sculptures based on their ideas — to design the main foyer at Broad Meadow Elementary School in Needham, Massachusetts. The sculptures are solar-powered, connecting art with science. Photo by John Hession
Birch seems grateful that his art is something tangible he can leave behind. Just as some of his fellow support group members make crafts “that are theirs, that they can present as theirs, I’m feeling the same way,” he says. “For quite a while, I was able to do large public sculptures. I did a lot of them. And now I can’t do those. I’m thinking about them; I’m making little scale models of them, but they’re not out there.” He pauses. “And one thing that’s hitting me in the nose is that I’m feeling close to the end of the road. That’s what I’m thinking.”
On the day we most recently spent time with Birch, two years to the day after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and six months after he was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, we saw in him a man who is acutely aware of the limited time he likely has left, and grappling with the keen awareness of what he will leave behind. Although Birch says he is a loner, it is obvious that one of the things he values most is human connection. How profoundly sad, then, that his connection with others is the very thing that is slowly but surely slipping away.
“Some people think about how in the end it’s going to kill you,” he says of dementia. “I try to ignore that. I mean, I know it might kill me, I’m conscious of that. And it will affect my family. [My daughters will be] losing a father.”
But generally, “I just tell people the truth,” he says. “It is what it is. I can live with what it is. But I don’t tell people or let myself think that it’s going to go away next week. It’s not. I’ll go for a long time if I can, but it seems like it’s the end of the show. And I’m seeing things, I hear about things in the future that have no possibility for me other than death. Among people I know, I talk about it,” Birch says. “On occasion, I break down and cry. Especially with children. But for the most part, I’m doing the things I’m doing, eating the things I eat, spending time with friends. It’s what life is all about anyway.”
Birch stands in front of "The Eternal Shield." It was dedicated in 1998 and is the first sculpture in more than 100 years to be sited on the Statehouse grounds in Concord. Learn more about the memorial in the sidebar below.
So for now, Birch savors the daily activities and pleasures that healthy people take for granted. He is grateful for every day. And whether he realizes it or not, like the people on the bike path, he has reached out to strangers — through his work with prisoners, hospital patients, schoolchildren and others — and will continue to do so through his sculptures. Perhaps as we pass the Pollyanna statue on our way to a restaurant or hurry past the Portsmouth firefighter memorial on our commute to work, we will be reminded of the significance of human connection.
It’s the kind of hopeful thought that can still bring a smile to the face of Emile Birch.
Stars Within Stars
A Memorial to Valor
At first glance, you might think “The Eternal Shield” is fairly simple — after all, an eternal flame is an oft-used symbol of remembrance. But Birch’s design, which honors all law enforcement officers and pays special homage to those who died in the line of duty, deserves a much closer look. The base of the bronze flame is in the shape of a five-pointed star, the emblem of law enforcement. Surrounding the flame are the walls of the memorial, which form yet another star, each inscribed with the names of fallen officers. They are situated in such a way so that, when sitting on one of the benches, you can easily read the names facing you. Hidden from view within the base of the flame’s pedestal is a special compartment that holds badges from each law enforcement agency in the state. Shields, within a shield within a shield.
Commissioned by the NH Law Enforcement Officers’ Memorial Association in 1995, the resulting memorial’s dedication ceremony took place at an especially poignant time. On September 26, 1998, hundreds of officers and their fellow Granite Staters gathered to both officially unveil “The Eternal Shield” and to remember and mourn the three officers so recently added to its list of names. New Hampshire state troopers Scott Phillips and Leslie Lord were killed in August of 1997 by Carl Drega in the northern town of Colebrook in a rampage that also claimed the lives of Judge Vickie Bunnel and newspaper editor Dennis Joos. On August 24, the morning after attending the funerals for Phillips and Lord, officer Jeremy Charron was shot and killed while responding to reports of a suspicious car.
Today, there are a total of 48 officers on the sanctuary’s walls. They represent the service and sacrifice of officers dating back to 1888. You can learn about each officer on the NH Law Enforcement Officers’ Memorial Association website, newhampshirelawenforcementmemorial.com, where they maintain a roll of honor.