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Painting and Parkinson's: A Different Kind of Medicine

By Nancy Grandoff

In March of 1998, a drastic change took place in my life.  At first, the tremor had been barely noticeable.  When it could no longer be ignored, I consulted a neurologist.  “You have Parkinson’s,” the doctor said.  He drummed on with other details, while I tried to comprehend how a little tremor could have turned into something that I would have for the rest of my life.  The doctor continued, “there is no cure, but with the proper medication, we can control most of the symptoms.”

At the time, my husband was gearing down his law practice for retirement.  We were enjoying life, traveling and doing the things that interested us.  I was angry that this thing had come along to interrupt our lives.  The word “Parkinson’s” rattled around in my head as I stood at the prescription counter waiting for what was to become my constant companion — medications.  At first, I wanted to feel sorry for myself and wallow in self-pity.  But there was a different program in store for me. 

My husband told me that it was time for me to get with it, to stop moping and take up painting again (I used to be a watercolorist).  Was he serious?  How could I paint with an unsteady hand?  Besides, I had not picked up a brush in years.  I told him that I couldn’t do it.  But he persisted, even going so far as to drive me to an art store and insist that I buy the supplies I needed to start painting. 

Back at home, I set up my art board, placed my paints and then I had a moment of panic.  I didn’t know what to paint!  So I began by putting colors on the board.  Slowly, I began to enjoy the beautiful colors and for the first time since the diagnosis of PD, I found myself eager to paint again, even with the tremor. 

I painted and painted, my inspiration growing as I saw my work taking shape.  I soon became aware that as I painted and concentrated on my art, any symptom that I may have had went out the window.  I had no problem holding and using even the smallest brush.  I was a watercolorist again!

I soon found that my experience with art was one that I shared with other people who lived with Parkinson’s.  At the time of my diagnosis, I had been urged by my doctor’s staff to join a support group.  In addition to providing a network of support, the group also provided an avenue through which to share my creative experiences with others.  For instance, I was asked to speak to groups about the benefits that I had found from painting.  When a local TV station aired a half-hour program on PD awareness, a group of us — my doctor, another person with PD and myself — were interviewed about Parkinson’s and about the possible benefits of being creative. 

Through the Creativity and Parkinson’s Project of the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation (PDF), my artwork, titled, Playful Turtles, was exhibited at the 2006 World Parkinson Congress (WPC).  I was honored to be given the opportunity to have my art shown along with other artists from around the world, all of whom live with Parkinson’s.
Unfortunately, my husband, my biggest supporter and the one who encouraged me to paint again, passed away shortly before the WPC took place.  But I still paint.  The diagnosis of PD showed me the way back to a talent that had long been dormant.  I feel very fortunate that 10 years after my initial diagnosis, I am one of the lucky ones who exhibits very few symptoms of PD.  And while I am grateful at how the creative process has been a salvation for me, I am even more thrilled to see how it has touched others who are living with this debilitating condition.

I am neither a Monet nor a van Gogh.  I am just a person with PD who loves to paint.

Nancy Grandoff lives in North Carolina.  She is part of PDF’s Creativity and Parkinson’s Project, which now features the work of 220 artists from 14 countries, with artwork in 10 different mediums, including poetry, sculpture, dance, jewelry making, and photography.  We invite you to visit, tour the gallery and contribute your own works of creativity