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Finding Joy in Brokenness: Parkinson's Disease Leads Two Portland Women to Art and One Another

By Melissa Binder

Beautification often follows disruption.

A sheet of glass is cut into shards. Thin paper is repeatedly creased. Two women are diagnosed with a mysterious, progressive disease.

The results are a colorful mosaic, a luck-bringing crane, and two strangers whose parallel experiences are a testament to the power art and hope.

Kathy Hartman and Bev Mickelson met recently, curious about one another after receiving the same national honor for their artwork. Their friendship, like an April lupine, is just beginning to bloom. But for one of them, a short meeting was enough to replace fear with hope.

Piecing life back together

Hartman’s mosaics fills her home: A flower pot by the fireplace, a light switch cover near the sun room, an installation in the recently-modeled shower. A large mirror framed with black, yellow, orange and green shards of glass hangs in the hallway.

“I call it people of the mirror,” Hartman said, laughing as she pointed to the various feminine forms depicted in the frame. “This girl has pierced nipples. People note that she doesn't have a face, and I’m like ‘Yeah, she doesn't. She can't face it.’”

Hartman was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2008. She taught second grade in Forest Grove, and noticed she was struggling to form her normally compliment-worthy handwriting.

“My fingers just wouldn’t work,” she said. “My writing was small and so slow. I thought, 'Oh my gosh, what is wrong with me?'”

Something very serious. The chemical that lubricates neurotransmitters in her brain was dwindling, making it difficult for her head to tell her muscles how to move.

The diagnosis was frightening. She had watched a woman on her husband’s side of the family face Parkinson’s disease. The old woman’s voice fell quieter with time, and her mobility decreased until she struggled to swallow.

“She died like she went into herself and couldn’t get out,” Hartman said.

Her own case is progressing slowly, but walking feels like marching, and she’s had to give up beloved activities such as biking and skiing. She drools a bit from the right side of her mouth. She recently painted the steps to her basement different colors to compensate for her increasingly impaired depth perception.

Hartman retired in 2010, two years after the diagnosis, and moved with her husband to Northeast Portland. She had sewn quilts in her 20s and guided her two children through leaf-gluing and apron-painting, but never considered herself an artist. Inspired by an abundance of free time and proximity to art stores and studios, she rediscovered her creative side in retirement and became hooked on glass art after participating in a workshop a couple of years ago.

The 62-year-old doesn’t sell her art — except for that one time a woman offered $200 for a piece — and treats it more like a hobby than part of her identity.

Her artwork is also therapy.

Parkinson’s patients sometimes experience a creative spark after they begin treatment, said James Beck, a medical expert with the national Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. Medication for the disease increases the amount of dopamine in the brain, he said, which can trigger a creative drive. That’s a good thing, he said, because using hand muscles and engaging in activities that force concentration help combat the disease’s progression.

Hartman believes cutting and placing colored glass keeps her hands and her brain dexterous. Perhaps more importantly, the work provides an escape.

Feeling slow is Hartman’s main frustration with Parkinson’s. She used to take 15 minutes to prepare for a party. Now she needs more than an hour. Her body won’t move at the rate her brain demands.

Art is the one activity that doesn’t make her feel slow.

“When I'm doing my glass, it's like I'm thinking of nothing else,” she said. “I'm just obsessed. It's kind of like meditating.”

Taking on new shape

Bev Mickelson, a former exercise physiologist and sports fanatic, knows a thing or two about the importance of concentration and exercise.

Throughout high school, college and early adulthood Mickelson lived for sports. She participated in basketball, cross-country skiing and everything in between. She almost went pro in racquetball. “You name it, I did it,” she said.

Today, Mickelson depends on a walker. She is bent at the waist, unable to stand up straight.

She now finds the same satisfaction that sports used to provide in an unexpected art form: origami.

“When you pick up a piece of paper and fold it, that piece of paper is never the same,” she said. “Same with me. When I’m folded, I’m never the same.”

Mickelson’s life has been irreparably folded more times than she’d like. Her health battles began in her bones, where Paget’s disease of bone caused pain and limited mobility in her then-30-year-old hips. Like Hartman, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2008. Fibromyalgia, a disorder that causes long-term body-wide pain, came somewhere in between.

Art wasn't a part of Mickelson’s life until Parkinson’s and other health problems prompted her move to a Southeast Portland senior living center in 2011. Now brightly colored paper stars, cranes, sunflowers and water lilies grace various surfaces in room, and strings of beads hang in the window. Tiny cranes are tucked into a strand of colored Christmas lights bordering her doorframe. Visitors are offered cranes or bookmarks she makes by laminating strips of magazine paper.

Mickelson’s colorful decorations reflect her generosity and upbeat attitude. Her demeanor and decor are almost enough to make you forget the physical reality: The room is still cluttered with drab facility furniture and medical equipment, and the 59-year-old’s mobility is still deteriorating far earlier in life than seems fair.

Yet she smiles at other residents she passes in the hallway, addressing them all by name and thanking each for the compliment they inevitably pay her bright pink and green pants. She beams as she describes her garden or her artwork. She jokes about the dyskinesia, or spasmodic movements, that Parkinson’s medication can cause: “My table leads for the most spills.”

She completes most of her artwork in the wee hours of the morning, after aches disrupt her sleep. Mickelson’s hands tremble almost constantly (this common Parkinson’s symptom is known as a “tremor”), but she gets lost in the repetitive movements and ever-changing designs of her tiny, detailed folds.

“When I’m doing my crafts I feel like I don’t have Parkinson’s,” she said. “I live with so much chronic pain that any time off is really valuable.”

A model of hope

Both women were chosen from among hundreds to have their artwork featured in the 2014 Parkinson’s Disease Foundation calendar. Each was surprised to see another Portland artist listed.

They met for the first time on Feb. 23 at Mickelson’s senior living center.

In Hartman, Mickelson sees a seeker. As a former coach, she feels a desire to guide and support other Parkinson’s patients in earlier stages of the disease.

“I see a person who is just beginning to experience the negative aspects of her disease and is learning to embrace it,” Mickelson said of Hartman. She’s encouraged Hartman to join the support group she leads monthly, but recognizes the other artist might not be ready.

“I'm sure it's hard for her to look at me, because she sees what might be down the road for her,” Mickelson said.

It was hard. Hartman didn’t know Mickelson suffers from a constant tremor and is bent at the waist. She said it was scary to see what the disease can do.

But even just an hour with Mickelson, who is talkative, interesting and generous despite her pain, was enough to turn that fear into inspiration.

“She wasn’t an Eeyore-downer,” Hartman said. “She was so much like myself in her creative passion.”

In Mickelson, Hartman sees a beacon of encouragement, a woman who exudes positivity despite her physical limitations. Depression and apathy are common among Parkinson’s patients, she said, and she is determined to remain cheery. Mickelson is proof it can be done.

“Our bodies can change,” she said, “but our spirit does not have to.”

Source Date: Apr 14 2014
Source Publication: The Oregonian
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