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3 People Turning Parkinson’s Into Inspiring Works of Art

It may seem as though Parkinson's and art operate at cross purposes.

How can individuals with a disease marked by limb tremors and muscle rigidity be drawn to creative pursuits that so often depend on deftness and dexterity?

Yet, numerous studies have shown art and Parkinson's share an intimate, if indistinct, interconnection. Many clinics and adult day centers have adopted various forms of art therapy programs for people living with Parkinson's.

Scientists are still trying to tease out the relationship between Parkinson's and creative endeavors. Some researchers have found a link between Parkinson's treatment and newly-awakened creativity. Other studies indicate that the changes in brain chemistry caused by the disease itself may play a role in helping people tap into their inner artist.

Whatever the cause, the fact remains that creative endeavors can help people not only to cope, but to thrive, even in light of a dark diagnosis.

Here are three real-life examples of individuals who've found a refuge from Parkinson's in the pursuit of art.

The unexpected artist

Chip Colley was an outdoorsman—not an artist. "I had friends who were artists, but I couldn't paint at all," he says.

Colley grew up fishing with his father on the Escambia Bay, near his hometown of Pensacola, Florida. When his son, Zachary, was old enough, Colley indoctrinated him in to the timeless father-son tradition of pre-dawn angling.

And when he was first diagnosed with Parkinson's, Colley fled to the cypress bog behind his house to reflect on this new, largely unwelcome, phase of his life.

Early on in the disease, he was hit hard by bouts of insomnia that would last until three o'clock in the morning. Not being a huge fan of television ("It stresses me out."), he struggled to occupy these sleepless nights.

During the day, Colley frequented the three art galleries in town. He enjoyed perusing the creations of the professional artists, until, one day, one of those artists came up to him and asked: "Why don't you try to paint something?"

He initially dismissed the idea out right, "My hands were always shaking so hard that I couldn't even write my own name," he says.

But, during one of the endless, empty nights, Colley made a decision that would forever alter his outlook on his disease—he grabbed a sheet of paper and some pencils, and began to draw.

To his surprise, the drawings turned out "pretty good." Colley began to expand his scope, digging through boxes of his children's old art supplies. "I started painting with anything I could get my hands on," he says.

He had questions about his new-found penchant for portraiture, but continued to allow his creative juices to flow. The next time Colley went to his neurologist for a checkup, he presented the doctor with a stack of paintings and asked, "What's this about?"

The physician was impressed but not surprised by Colley's prowess. He suggested Colley enroll in a study about Parkinson's and creativity being conducted by the University of Florida. "We walked in and they just handed us a bag of art supplies and told us to do our thing."

Colley's art has gradually gotten better. He prefers painting and sculpting, sometimes combining the two to paintings with embossed surfaces. "It's been great. I've met so many people since I started doing art," he says. "When you're focused on a project, you tend not to think about your physical problems. It just takes you away."

His advice for fellow Parkinson's sufferers: "Pick up a paintbrush, dance, sing. Do anything you want, but don't just sit there, enjoy your life. I'm considered an artist now, I would never have dreamed it in a million years."

The old sailor with Parkinson's

Robert Bartoo describes himself as, "an old sailor who has Parkinson's disease," But, he is first and foremost a storyteller.

"Once you get me started, I spin terrible tales," he admits. It's an endearing aspect of his personality that has endured despite his diagnosis.

As a young man, Bartoo spent eight years sailing on the Great Lakes. Once he reclaimed his land legs, he decided to open up the, "Sea Shanty Restaurant," a tavern which turned into an unintentional hot spot for Vietnam veterans to congregate and commiserate.

The stories he heard in that bar were the catalysts that initially ignited Bartoo's passion for telling tales. "All of my creativity came out of that need to tell their story; it just poured out of me."

Bartoo's first stage play, "A Night to Remember," dealt with the difficult homecoming of a Vietnam veteran suffering from both post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and Parkinson's. Over the years, it has been performed on multiple stages, was featured at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington, D.C., and was turned into a 90 minute broadcast for NPR.

The irony is not lost on Bartoo that, years after penning his play, he too was diagnosed with Parkinson's.

After listening for years to the tales of returning vets who struggled to find a place in a society that refused to accept them, Bartoo suddenly found himself in a similar situation. His trembling hands would cause food to fall from his fork, or change to spill out of his wallet; people spoke to him in condescending tones, making him feel embarrassed and alone.

So he did what all creatives do when they experience pain—he turned it into art. This time using music to get his message across.

"Music has always been uplifting to me; it's so different, it really carries you away. If I didn't have music, I don't think I'd still be around."

He composed a series of songs specifically about Parkinson's and compiled them onto a CD, called, "Riding the Winds With Parkinson's." Bartoo hopes his songs will serve as a source of inspiration for people dealing with the disease, as well as their caregivers.

"I have a soft spot in my heart for caregivers, they do incredibly good work for other people," he says.

Click on the links below to listen to two of the songs on "Riding the Winds With Parkinson's"

The careful quilter

Kathryn Jenkins comes from a family of sewers. Her mother sewed, he grandmother sewed, and she and her sisters sew too.

Jenkins' life-long passion for stitching was too strong to be squashed by the Parkinson's diagnosis she received 11 years ago. "My mom made every one of her seven children their own individual quilts. I think that's what got me started with quilting." she says.

She's undergone deep-brain stimulation (DBS) and takes medications to treat her symptoms, but Jenkins has found an equal amount of relief in making quilts for her friends and family members.

"I don't think about Parkinson's when I'm quilting, I'm simply tuned in to what I'm doing," says Jenkins. "If I am at home, you will find me at my sewing machine. I think I'd rather do that than eat."

Her recommendation to people taking care of a loved one with Parkinson's: "Encourage them to get started on something they're passionate about. Don't let them just sit at home and feel sorry for themselves. If they do that, then they'll just start to worry about how they feel and it's not good to think like that."

Here are some tips for keeping seniors busy and active--no matter where they live.


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