Neil Eckersley: Defying Dementia Through Visual Art

Neil Eckersley at the Defying Dementia shop in Lancaster with his artwork from 'I know you're in there' © John Connell
Neil Eckersley at the Defying Dementia shop with his artwork from 'I know you're in there'

Neil’s remarkable journey has seen him become a double Olympian as a Martial Arts competitor, winning a bronze medal in Judo at the 1984 Olympic Games. His talents and passion as a visual artist have helped him to support his own experiences of personal loss, as well as provide a way to raise awareness of Dementia. This is something that is incredibly important to Neil, after recently losing his father who lived with dementia for 5 years.

Neil became an artist after the sudden death of his older brother, who Neil saw as his protector and hero. As well as sport, this was a way to help Neil to cope with this loss, and after being introduced to art, he found a way to channel his grief into something that was therapeutic and helped him to express his emotions. Neil’s artwork has been exhibited all over the world, including major commissions by the International Olympic Committee and the International Judo Federation.

Neil’s latest body of work is entitled, ‘I know you’re in there’, and is a reflection of Neil’s experience of his father’s dementia. The work includes pieces called ‘It’s Not a Laughing Matter’, ‘Memories are Golden’ and ‘Three Faces of Dementia’.

‘It’s Not a Laughing Matter’ is a spin on the title, as it signifies the power of laughter, and how Neil and his father laughed every day when he visited the residential home.

‘Memories Are Golden’ is a golden sculpture of a head placed in a glass box with written words on paper labels to represent Neil and his father’s memories, memories which became precious and in need of protecting.

‘Three Faces of Dementia’ is a depiction of the rapid changes in mood and emotions in Neil’s father. This piece resonated strongly with people who had similar experiences with dementia, who conveyed to Neil that they too had witnessed these changes in their loved ones.

“What I am trying to do is spark a conversation about dementia,” says Neil. “I feel it is important to have an early diagnosis if you think something is wrong. I know it’s difficult, but having an early diagnosis can help everybody because there is support and medication to assist. Don’t ignore it - go and seek help and chat with people.”

This is how Neil became involved with the Defying Dementia Fundraising and Community Shop in Lancaster.

“When I was very down, I walked into the shop and I spoke to the volunteers and they were amazing. For me to come in and talk to somebody who had gone through the same situation took a lot of weight off my shoulders.”

Neil’s artwork was exhibited in the shop in October 2023, with the aim of sparking conversation about the effects and support surrounding dementia. The exhibition played a role in the celebration of the shop's 5th anniversary and the exciting news that the shop had raised over £50,000 to support Lancaster University's Defying Dementia campaign.

“The shop is amazing,” says Neil. “Choosing the shop to display the exhibition was significant for a number of reasons. The work that they do in support of dementia research is invaluable. It was also important for me to know that the money they raise goes directly towards research at Lancaster University. Creatively exhibiting the work in a space such at the Defying Dementia shop may also go some way in helping to break down barriers for the general public who don’t go to galleries or exhibition spaces”

Neil’s work has boosted the visibility and publicity that the Defying Dementia campaign receives, and for that, we are incredibly proud and grateful.

Neil’s wife Anita Chamberlain is also involved in fundraising activities which support the Defying Dementia campaign. Anita recently held a craft fair, selling items made by volunteers from the Defying Dementia shop as well as Anita’s own handmade creations made out of recycled materials.

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