No stopping 

Parkinson's artists find the good life in creative challenges

Right now Hadley Ferguson is on medication, so you won't notice the tremor in her right hand. You might not realize that her handwriting has gotten smaller over the last few years. You couldn't possibly know—partly because she emits so much energy—that sometimes she only sleeps a few hours a night. You'd also be surprised to know that the renowned local artist, whose paintings are represented at the Dana Gallery and cover downtown brick walls and the insides of coffee shops and bars, has, since she was diagnosed with Parkinson's at the young age of 33, gotten more adventurous with her paintings.

"They're brighter and there's a lot more variation between one piece and another," says Ferguson, now 35. "I'm branching out, just enjoying the painting process versus creating a product that somebody's going to like. I don't care about that anymore. I'm taking more risks and I like my paintings better."

click to enlarge “Left-Handed Painting” by Hadley Ferguson will be on display for the Summit for Parkinson’s First Friday silent auction at the Dana Gallery.
  • “Left-Handed Painting” by Hadley Ferguson will be on display for the Summit for Parkinson’s First Friday silent auction at the Dana Gallery.

Case in point: She's right-handed, but she just finished a painting using her left hand. The image shows a family of three standing at wooden gates in an autumnal landscape. It's an impressionistic, glimmering take on the season (and a tribute to her family), less precise than her right-handed paintings but vibrant and skillful nonetheless.

If painting with her right is going to become an issue, she says, why not try the left?

That sort of optimism is the most obvious thing about Ferguson when you talk with her. And it's not sugar-coated optimism.

"When I'm tired I notice the tremor and that means probably down the road it will be more pronounced," she says. "I'm trying for the first time to do a painting with my left hand as an exercise where if something doesn't work one way there's always another way to do it. You don't stop just because something's difficult."

Ferguson is spearheading a Parkinson's awareness weekend October 20–22, through her non-profit group Summit for Parkinson's, which she started with Brandi Roman, a 30-year-old Montana Parkinson's patient. It's co-sponsored by the Brian Grant Foundation, the project of the former Portland Trail Blazers player who was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2009. The big weekend includes a documentary screening, parties with music, panels, silent and live auctions, and other events, with proceeds going to fund Parkinson's resources and education. To kick things off early, the Dana Gallery has donated its space this First Friday to showcase art by people with Parkinson's.

Ferguson's left-handed painting will be on display with other silent auction items, including fused glasswork, photographs and knitted bags—all of which require a detailing that's often challenging for people with Parkinson's. The artists, who all have early-onset Parkinson's, are between 30 and their mid-50s. Most of them know each other through Facebook.

One artist for the show, Catherine Armsden, 56, started writing 10 years ago during a fit of physical symptoms—insomnia and fatigue, mostly, plus the depression that often accompanies them. She isn't sure those symptoms were related to Parkinson's, but eventually she started getting more concrete symptoms and was finally diagnosed in late 2009, about a year before Ferguson. She'd been an architect for a firm she still owns with her husband in San Francisco, and she was building dream homes for people. But the symptoms made her tired and her curiosity in architecture was beginning to shift—she was more intrigued with people's idea of home than how their actual home would be designed.

"I became more fascinated by the whole psychology of the work, what people were asking for, than the actual design of the house," she says.

Armsden found that however depleted or depressed she felt, she was able to sit down and write. It gave her permission, she says, to sink her teeth into creative writing, which eventually evolved into the beginnings of a novel. By the time she was fully diagnosed, she was several years into the book. Dream House, which is set to be published in 2012, is loosely based on her own life. It tells the story of an architect who designs houses for people but who's also searching for her own place in the world. She's from Maine but she's living on the West Coast, feeling alienated by her clients who are wealthy and have fantasies of big houses. The protagonist ends up back where she grew up in Maine to come to terms with what a dream house really means to her.

For the Dana Gallery exhibit and auction, Armsden didn't have a conventional way to show her work ("I don't think anyone will bid on a novel," she says), so she came up with a more visual way to display her writing. She selected two old photographs shot by her father, both of which heavily influenced the novel. They're black and white photos with a nostalgic, mysterious quality. One is the view from her childhood bedroom of a cove in Maine and the other is of her with her two sisters when they were little. Then she combined handwritten passages from the book with those two photographs. One begins: "The shore held the cove with the roundness of a ballerina's arms, opening to the harbor then releasing the water to flow around the islands and beyond." The other is a conversation between the three sisters as they divide up family heirlooms after the parents have died.

"I think people are curious about the way other people live and about their photographs," she says.

There's no stopping Armsden. She's already halfway through another book. This is probably the most surprising thing when you talk to any of these artists with Parkinson's. Post-diagnosis, everything changes, but in ways people often can't imagine. For a lot of Parkinson's patients, art opens up their minds and keeps their brains in shape. And, in the process, some people learn that they actually have a gift for art.

"I think that what the Parkinson's has done is made me much more determined to be a serious writer and get this book published," says Armsden. "I'm working hard with a real focus and at the same time getting the most out of my relationships—just really trying to get as much out of life as I possibly can. It's a pretty sweet thing."

The First Friday silent auction showcases art by artists with Parkinson's at the Dana Gallery Friday, Oct. 7, from 5 to 8 PM. Free. The silent auction runs through Sat., Oct. 22.

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