Parkinson's Disease and Art: Creativity in Isolation

With the monotony creeping in on what is now week 4 of social distancing for us at Design Science, the shorter commute and all-you-can-eat lunches are starting to lose their charm. Since there are only so many news cycles you can tune into before abandoning all hope, we reached out to a group of participants who are known to look on the brighter side of things for more creative ways to spend our time.

Betty and John are artists in the Philadelphia area living with Parkinson’s Disease (commonly referred to as PD). We asked them to describe their favorite artistic activities as well recommend any tips they have on remaining positive during these uncertain times:

  1. Keep in touch with friends and family via technology, such as phone, Zoom and FaceTime.

  2. Take a break from overwhelming news and social media.

  3. Organize, declutter, and appreciate the calmness this provides.

  4. Reach out and help others.

  5. Engage virtually in your synagogue, church or mosque.

  6. Go out in nature while preserving your safety and health (maintaining a 6-foot distance from others).

  7. Expand your skills: learn something new. Read. Take classes. Experiment.

  8. Meditate. Try yoga, or tai chi.

  9. Be grateful for all the joys in life, like your family, a loving smile, or a beautiful sunset.

  10. Laugh, laugh deeply. Cleanse yourself and laugh some more.

"Remember, everything has a beginning, middle, and an end," Betty says. "This pandemic will end. Yes, it will end, and we will have a new normal. We will have a ceremony, a joyous celebration. We will have survived."

What are some of your favorite creative outlets? 

Betty: I have always enjoyed drawing and painting, but from childhood until more recent years, it didn’t matter how frequently I engaged in my art. I was happy as long as I drew or painted on an infrequent basis. In recent years I feel I MUST do my artwork on a daily basis. I have developed a style that can be whimsical and joyous or interlaced with darkness. One of the benefits I notice from daily art practice is that my skills improve.

John: I’ve been taking pictures since I was about 10 years old. It is something I’ve loved doing, and always want to be doing - capturing sunrises and sunsets in very special places, people and their faces, and edifices that go back thousands of years. We’ve even shared my photographs on stationary cards with people we meet in our travels. My wife and I have enjoyed doing this and we hope that it has shown Americans in a positive way.

Do you feel that PD influences your creativity?

Betty: PD heavily influences my artwork. Prior to my PD diagnosis, my preferred color palate was primarily muted tones. Now, after my diagnosis, I use bright shades of brilliant colors, the brighter the better, irrespective of the natural color of what I am drawing.

John: One of the “gifts” of having a neurodegenerative disease is that you have an opportunity to consider and decide what’s really important to you: what do you want to do with the remaining time you have in this world?  It’s also a question anyone, with or without a disease, might ask themselves.  From the moment we are born, aren’t we seeking to know “What am I passionate about?”

Do you have any advice for others looking to begin a new artistic endeavor?

Betty: To other people who want to begin in the arts, I say “Kudos to you.” Jump right in. Read, explore, take classes, talk to artists. Involve yourself in one of the arts with which you are comfortable. Try one or more art forms with which you are not comfortable. The risk may yield boundless joys. If it doesn’t, you have lost nothing. You are free to begin looking into your next artistic endeavor.

Chris, John’s wife: I think we are all creative. There are those who are afraid to start a creative activity because they compare themselves to famous artists and musicians. This is a mistake and may discourage people from trying creative activities which can provide meaning and joy for their life. I think it is important to tell your “inner critic” to go away and be willing to try new things. It does not matter if you think you make “mistakes” – mistakes can turn into wonderful discoveries.

Any tips on how to stay hopeful during these times?

Betty: To cope with the Coronavirus lockdown, I fight PD with the same rigor and frequency that I did prior to the pandemic. I maintain a daily exercise program of either yoga, boxing, walking, or dancing. I eat healthy food. I sing, dance, enjoy researching and discussing issues, and look forward to reuniting with my Parkinson choir, dance class and women’s support group as soon as the lockdown is over.

Chris: I think the important lessons this uncertain time of Covid 19 can reinforce in us is the same lesson I hope we have learned from having PD - life is short and nothing is certain. The only time you have for sure is this moment. Therefore, it helps if you can live your life as meaningful and artfully as possible. I hope people who are struggling with a challenge such as a disease or dealing with the uncertainty of this present pandemic, will take the time to try a creative activity and share creative works with others. Creativity has the power to lift the soul, provide meaning, and form bonds with others – even if it is at a distance!

John: I like to think that 11 years ago when I was told that I had Parkinson’s Disease, that it gave us permission to realize our dreams; to go outside the box and not confine ourselves to someone else’s arbitrary rules or self-imposed limitations. Although we will always be looking forward, we are able to look back and proclaim to ourselves, Carpe diem. Seize your days now and into the future! I do hope that you find what resonates within and you are able to go farther than you ever imagined.

If you’d like to read more about John and his wife, as well as his poetry, photography, and art, look for his book More Than What You See © 2018. Finally, be on the lookout for both Betty and John in the upcoming documentary film Parkinson’s Third Wind by award-winning filmmaker Peter Barton.

John P. Creveling  - Alaska - Photo

"Alaska" photograph by John P. Creveling


Drawing by Betty Shapiro

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