York artist Kate Buckley has coped with her mum's dementia by making a series of works which will be on display during York Residents' Festival on Sunday. MAXINE GORDON reports

AT first glance, Kate Buckley's 3-D mixed media sculpture appears like a rugby ball made from a black cobweb.

But there is a darker story behind the artwork – one which is moving and inspiring in equal parts.

The artwork is supposed to resemble the neural pathways of the brain and the impact that dementia has on them. It is one of five pieces in a collection called Lost For Words, which Kate began after her mum Rowena Silvester was diagnosed with dementia.

Some of the pieces will be on show – along with other works by Kate – on Sunday as part of York Residents Festival at the Merchant Taylors' Hall in York.

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TANGLED: One of Kate's vitrines showing her interpretation of the workings of a brain with signs of dementia

Kate, 53, from South Bank, York, said: "I am trying to get across the effect of dementia on Mum."

Rowena was diagnosed in 2012 with a rare form of the disease – frontotemporal dementia – that mainly affects the front and sides of the brain (the frontal and temporal lobes) and causes problems with behaviour and language.

Kate, who has two grown-up children, said it took a while for family and medics to realise what was wrong because from the outside Rowena appeared to be coping well with life. "Looking back, it's very clear there were signs. Mum's social skills were all still there, so she would invite us in for a cup of tea, and completely fooled the health visitors as well as us. Then we realised there had been a few instances of Mum losing empathy and logical, rational thought, then the words started to go."

Today, Kate's mum lives in a care home near York, and while she still recognises Kate, her ability to communicate has all but gone.

This is the backstory to the Lost For Words pieces – and knowing this makes the works all the more poignant.

Take that "3-D rugby ball"; when you look closer, there are pieces of red, frayed wool tangled among the "cobwebs" (thin pieces of black plastic which have been woven into the shape of a brain and its network of neural pathways). "It's to show the synapses of the brain, and the tangles and plaques from Alzheimer's," explains Kate. The red wool is to signify the damaged part of the brain.

This theme continues across the other four pieces. In a second work, Kate has created a stream of plastic words, jumbled up and spilling out of the structure of the brain – again to signify how dementia can destroy the ability to communicate.

The artwork will also be on show during York Open Studios in April and will be displayed at Alzheimer’s Research UK’s conference in Harrogate in March.

Kate says it is unusual to find an artist making pieces about dementia. "The majority of work is done by dementia sufferers or their carers; there is very little out there by artists themselves."

Kate, a mature student at York College, is in the final year of a degree course in Contemporary Craft. She began studying art shortly after her mother's diagnosis and the sudden death of her brother, Simon, aged 50. Previously, she had been a primary teacher.

"I reevaluated what I wanted to do," begins Kate. "Leaving my job was the biggest decision I made." Aged 48, she enrolled in an art foundation course at York College alongside 120 other students – most of them in their late teens or early 20s. "It was the best year of my life," says Kate. "It was life affirming and I was happy again."

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ON DISPLAY: Kate with some of her work at York College, some of which is to be exhibited during Residents' Festival on Sunday

Perhaps it was only natural she would channel what was going on in her life into her art. It means that the pieces pack an emotional impact for Kate, which is still evident when she talks about them.

"I am trying to express the effects that dementia has on the brain and the person. For Mum, she was losing empathy and the ability to make sensible decisions about time. She used to play off a handicap of ten at golf and was a phenomenal gardener. But all that has gone. The hardest part was that her language was stolen from her and she couldn't really communicate.

"Dementia can be described as a black shadow. The illness is called the longest goodbye. I am trying to get across the effect of dementia on Mum."

Kate adds: "Dementia is cruel; it takes away and it leaves people bereft even when the relative is still living."

She says working on the pieces has brought "a sense of calm in the chaos". She adds: "It's a way of telling the story for Mum because she's not able to tell it herself."

To find out more about the illness or make a donation to help combat dementia you can visit: alzheimersresearchuk.org

Read our top ten picks of what to see in this weekend's Residents' Festival