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Bloomington-Normal artist with Alzheimer's depicts the decline of the human body through art

 A work by Harold Boyd
A work by Harold Boyd

Harold Boyd is an artist who has been unafraid in his lifetime to look unflinchingly at bodies in decline. His figures age, if not gracefully than honestly — the inevitable process of aging viewed through the lens of levity and acceptance.

Now in his 80s, the artist and former Illinois State University professor has entered his own state of decline.

Boyd suffers from Alzheimer's and he now requires around-the-clock care and a residential facility. The disease has created an inescapable financial reality. Even with insurance, Boyd's health care costs are astronomical. His partner, artist Rhea Edge, has arranged for an exhibition of Boyd's work that will function as part-retrospective, part-call to action. The hope is that sales of Boyd's work can help alleviate some of the financial pressure of his care.

Doug Johnson is the executive director and a longtime friend of Boyd. Johnson has known Boyd for 35 years and says he's in awe of Boyd's skill as a draftsman and the facile ease of Boyd's drawings. But Johnson acknowledges the dissonance between the quality of Boyd's body of work and the public attention.

"It's received, just phenomenal, thoughtful, reflective, brilliant ... understatement with his work," said Johnson. "But he didn't have an active exhibition record that someone of his facility would have, and should have probably had."

Boyd's partner, Edge, says that for most of his life, Boyd chose to spend his time in dialogue with his work rather than actively promoting and exhibiting it. As a result, Edge says, Boyd led a fairly isolated existence.

"And in the last maybe 10 years, he realized that and he wanted to get his work out because he wanted to share his own personal journey with it," said Edge.

Doug Johnson says Boyd's journey involved an ongoing examination of what it is to be mortal.

"The frailty of the human form was always part of his dialogue, but it was always created with such empathy," said Johnson. "It was always with a deep personal understanding."

And that way, Johnson says Boyd's work has evolved from pure metaphor to stark reality. There's a certain poignancy in that, Johnson says, and one that has always been reflected in Boyd's art.

"His work, I think, for all of us changes dramatically as we spend time with it. I mean, I think that's one of the great strengths of his work," said Johnson.

In preparing for the exhibition, Edge combed through the entire arc of Boyd's work. Curating the pieces that would represent a body of work that spanned decades was an emotional journey. She says it tends to take you back through your life through all its stages, and you connect with both your personal memories, but you also connect with what it's like to be an artist.

And Boyd's life is a poignant representation of what it's so often like to be an artist, far removed from the glamorized idea of flashy galleries and blue chip sales. The life of an artist is often a cloistered, quiet existence, a lifetime spent in the solitude of one studio and devotion to the work of those lives. Those artists don't always garner the recognition or retrospective they deserve. Boyd is among them, says Johnson.

"You know, I think this is an artist that merits that sort of investigation, and would have so deserved those sort of accolades earlier," said Johnson.

But Johnson, who's an artist himself, cautions against seeing any artist as a tragic figure. "It's hard to make a living as an artist," said Johnson. "Gosh, it's easy to make a life."

"Harold Boyd - UNFORGOTTEN" runs through July 12 at the McLean County Art Center in downtown Bloomington.

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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