Adaptation

37

Dear Artist,

Recently, Jerry Smith from Dallas, Texas wrote, “I painted in watercolour for many years and then became mentally unable to paint, suffering with Parkinson’s and depression. I’m proud of my paintings but I felt compelled to give away my paints, brushes, supports and all other materials. The good news is that I have replaced my painting with poetry. I’m just a novice poet and have much to learn. I wonder if any of your followers have similar experience and how they dealt with it.”

dale-Chihuly3

Dale Chihuly Glass and Garden
Exhibition 2012, Seattle Center

Thanks, Jerry.

Artists, especially those who’ve lost the use of their chosen instrument, seem to be natural-born adapters. Beethoven’s hearing had begun to deteriorate by his mid-thirties until he was almost entirely deaf at death, yet his most admired works were composed during the last 15 years of his life. For others, like glass blower Dale Chihuly who suffered an eye injury mid-career, adaptation came in the form of drawing, painting and taking on a team of assistants who helped with depth perception and larger production. All this led to Chihuly realizing his dream to elevate the craft of glass blowing to a global art stage.

After suffering permanent nerve damage from repeated small muscle movements, Phil Hansen dropped out of art school and fell into a depression. His neurologist suggested he embrace the limitations of his shaky hand by redirecting his creative impulses. For Phil, that meant forgoing detail work and instead building large-scale sculptures, making videos and using time-sensitive materials like candles, worms and his own body. “Embracing limitation can drive creativity,” said Phil.

In 1967, twenty-seven year-old painter Chuck Close wanted to make art more difficult — to force a breakthrough by abandoning the paintbrush. “I threw away my tools. I chose to do things I had no facility with,” he said. “If you impose a limit to not do something you’ve done before, it will push you to where you’ve never gone before.” Twenty-one years later, a spinal artery collapse left Close wheelchair-bound, but still painting.

Our impulses to make art supersede convenience, and inconvenience can be key to a higher expression. “You are a cosmic happening rooted in a local event, not the other way around,” said Michael Beckwith. The channel of creativity is never singular, and art will find a way. “Where you stumble,” wrote Joseph Campbell, “there lies your treasure.”

jerry-smith

First-born daughters, watercolor by Jerry Smith

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: LAZY, SUMMER AFTERNOON by Jerry Smith
A trickle of sweat
Rolled down my brow
The summer sun
Warmed me,
Lulled me,
As I rocked.
The smell of fresh-cut grass,
The buzz of a humming bird
Settled over me
Like perfume of Lavender and
A soothing glass of sweet tea.
An uneven deck board
gave my rocking a rythmic
click, thump, click, thump.
Until it stopped.
Click. . . thump.
I awoke to
Rolling thunder
and rain drops falling
where sweat had rested.
It was a good day.
Work done, rested,
Smelling fresh cut grass and lavender.

chuck-close_emma

Emma, portrait by Chuck Close

Esoterica: Parkinson’s disease is when dopamine-producing cells in the brain stop working over time. The causes are mostly unknown. Early symptoms include tremors, stiffness, slowness and difficulty in moving, sometimes advancing to sensory and sleep problems, dementia and depression, with sufferers prescribed medications to replace the loss of dopamine. Some neuroscientists believe that dopamine and creativity are linked, based on the observation that artists who suffer psychosis — which involves high dopamine activity — can be extremely productive. Some people diagnosed with Parkinson’s get suddenly arty on their prescribed medications, which may lower creative inhibitions to reveal once untapped heights of creative joy.

Actor Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at the age of 30. In 2010, he wrote, Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist.


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37 Comments

  1. What a beautiful and inspiring article, Sara! And what a beautiful poem, Richard. Your creativity has certainly not diminished. There is a tenderness in both your poem and painting that I admire. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. In July I fell and broke my right shoulder. There were complications and I had surgery in early October. I taught myself how to paint with my left hand, since this is going to be a long and painful recovery, and I’m not sure if I will ever be 100% again. Making the switch was easier than I thought it would be. Frankly, I think my left-handed paintings are better than my right handed ones!

    • Terrific article, and Kathy’s reply reminds me of several students of mine over the years. Some switched hands because of infirmities of various kinds. I’ve always felt that the impulse behind art is between the ears or in the heart and physical trouble can’t stop it.

  3. I’ve had many a conversation with my brother Paul about a ‘2 types of human’ concept. One group is ‘adapters’ and the other is ‘fixers’. Fixers take risks- work through problems- find solutions- and get the job done. Adapters try to fit in- don’t rock the boat- and kiss the boss’s ass. I was talking with a contractor friend a couple of days ago- about our Colorado law that requires new building to invest a small percentage of their budget in art. I suggested that at my age- it was unlikely I’d ever end up with that kind of semi-public contract because I no longer have any interest or intent to kiss anybody’s ass. Unexpectedly- that gained me some respect.
    At 62- you could say I’m having age-related issues and have begun to wonder how long I can keep doing what I’m doing before I simply can’t do all parts of it anymore. Yet funding an employee base remains impractical. But I’ve been depressed since I was 10 years old- so that path is very worn and pretty well understood- and nothing to fall back on or into. And if psychosis is seen as a way to enhanced productivity- then I’ve never been anything but psychotic. And this statement by Michael Beckwith- “You are a cosmic happening rooted in a local event, not the other way around” is my ordinary everyday reality. And I didn’t wait for one thing to dissipate before acting on another facet of my creativity. I’ve been doing them all- all along. But the Shaman/Healer I am definitely came out of the most intensely depressed period.
    So anyway- I am totally NOT a natural born adapter. I’m a fixer. And I even help others fix what they’re going through. But don’t ask for my help unless you’re actually ready and willing to do your own work. Because that’s the only way it works. And Jerry Smith- you may see yourself as a novice poet- but your poem is great. Creativity is meant to flow out of us in every possible way. We just need to get out of the way and let it flow.

    • I was deeply touched by this letter and the comments that followed it. I was also inspired and encouraged. I am an older, self-teaching artist, always wondering if I am on the right track…and yet determined to mine my hopes and stay on the golden path to discovery. My greatest fascination is “the process” mine, and that of others. In being open and transparent about how we do what we do, we can all teach, inspire and ultimately support one onother. Thank you ALL!

      RITA

  4. cheers- to life… and death
    © 2015 J. Bruce Wilcox

    heartbeat time flows swiftly by-
    distilling within that certain pain inherent in understanding

    a depth of grief is felt upon a fellow voyager’s departure-
    somehow balanced by its magnetic partner- joy

    sorrow slips in and out as we move through- NOW

    accepting… releasing… death is present in every moment
    remembering… forgetting… every exhale

    death is difficult for those in fear
    life has the potential to be infinitely interesting
    death is simply infinite

    never-ending bliss is as absurd as eternal damnation
    a soul’s one concern is growth

    to be as god is to BE- all knowing
    still religions preach endless limitation
    our very existence expresses our connection to goddess
    yet the closest place to find them is within

    and when you find god/goddess
    you find your self…
    and you find yourself-
    home

    om…

  5. Music was my focus from childhood to my mid twenties when a genetic condition of inner ear nerve damage proved itself. Profoundly deaf by age 30 with a degree in Visual art and two children my career as a painter flourished. Now age 60 my marriage at end, children grown it seems my desire to paint has gone. I’ve been penning poetry and essays and find myself composing music and lyrics…as the media changes the creativity continues toward a fully formed creative chronology… here’s to life’s little nudges…

  6. Thank you Sara………what an inspiring article. No doubt it is true when others say “your health is your wealth” it is true, but I must say, “my are is my wealth”. These creators you have mentioned remind us that we can and will be artists to the end. Love to you……………Vie

  7. Jerry, Congratulations on making your shift and continuing to make beautiful art. I share a similar experience, albeit my physical issues pale in comparison to Parkinson’s. At age 50 after decades of singing, I had to give it up as serious TMJ caused increasingly severe headaches. I knew I needed to do something creative, so a friend and I decided to take a painting class at the local votech school. Guess what? I should have been painting all along. It suits my retiring personality so much more than performance. Oddly, I’ve had success selling my art since the beginning., in part, because I approach painting, knowing that I know little, but I’m having some fun…kind of playing, if you get my meaning. Now, at age 63 and retired from secondary English teaching, I work almost everyday, doing something I love. I never would have guessed that my life would become so good at this rather late date. Stay well! B

  8. Sara – I’m a Canadian composer/songwriter (residing in Stratford, Ontario), and fortunate enough to receive
    several years worth of the wondrous newsletters with which you and your late father have graced us.
    I find all the postings to be compelling, tasteful, profound, insightful and inspiring. Thank you, thank you!
    Blessings – as ever, Marek Norman

  9. This is so true.

    After severe injuries, I had to abandon 20 years of playing classical music. I turned to the studio arts. The injuries slow me down, but necessary multiple breaks create opportunities for me to walk away from works and gain perspective. My eye was also injured…I create what I see and sense.

    I am reminded of Tibetan sand paintings. We carefully plan and work long and hard expecting our work to pay off the way we hoped it would. But sometimes life happens anyway and all we worked for so long and hard blows away. What we do afterward makes all the difference.

  10. Chuck Close also has a another condition that makes his choice of portraits even more stunning. He is unable to recognize a persons face. If his mother was standing in front of him he could not recognize her face. I watched a documentary about this condition and he was featured in it. I forget what the condition is called

  11. I have been a professional artist for 46+ years. In the last 15 years I have had serious health problems. I noticed the affects of various medications on my ability to create and mentally focus. I often went to my doctor and said I can’t paint therefore something is wrong with me. Often times there was. I made a decision to eat and drink for my health. I found drinking green tea and Matcha to help me focus mentally so I could paint. Where I once painted for hours on end I now find I can only do two hours or so at a stretch and preferably in the morning hours. I make those two hours count. I make notes on what I have to do to finish the painting and I prioritize the steps I will take to complete the painting. I work methodically to tick them off the list. I also use music to put me in the zone. Certain kinds of music affect me in a very positive way. Music I grew up with like Southern Gospel Quartet four part harmony, where I can feel the tenor slither down my spine and feel the bass in my belly. That helps me bee-bop through a painting. I also found I need to get out of my apartment and commune with nature. Go for drives on country roads. Wheel my scooter along wooded paths. Sit on a deck near water and listen to the lap of the water as it washes on the shore. I also found that going to art exhibits and chatting with other artists, examining their work made me want to go home and see how i could put what I saw on canvas. Recently I switched from watercolours to acrylics on canvas. Several reasons, one, it is more forgiving, two, it will last much longer than a watercolour and thirdly, it challenged me to explore new ides, new methods and required more intense thought. I started eating fresh fruits and vegetables, less red meat, no processed meats/foods and noticing when I ate in a certain manner I felt better or in some cases worse. I became more in tune with my body and my mind. It does take work. I also have always written a story for each painting or drawing I create. We are artists first in our minds and then we create what we think and feel. We only have one chance at life. I want to get all I can out of this one and I work every day to improve my body, my mind and my arts.

  12. It is a great story when we find ourselves not where we want to be,but we manage to turn thinks around for the better. There is always a reason why things happen. We might not know at the time, but later on it becomes clear to us. Thank you for all the inspirations.

  13. Thank you to Jerry Smith, for the story of his resilience, his visual art and his poem and to all who have commented already. I can’t express my appreciation any better than they already have.

  14. Christine Walsh on

    I began pursuing painting after a 35 year career in medicine. I damaged a nerve in my foot and could no longer work. I was also suffering from depression. I am able to sit while I work and find that my deep concentration into my work helps to minimize the negative thoughts that consume those in a depression. For me, painting has been a life saver.

  15. Thank you, Sara & Jerry & Fellow Artists! Wow, so much to think about.

    I looked after a Down’s Syndrome adult for many years in my home, thinking I could help someone have a home/room of their own supported by a caring family.
    Yes, this did come true, however, I learned far more from him and feel so Blessed to have had the opportunity to do so. I learned patience, gratitude and perseverance that was beyond belief. I learned how to accept things that could not be changed and appreciate all the little things in life. In the end, it made me a better person.

    When faced with a challenge, I try to go around, over or through it, like water ripples passing by a rock in a river. All of us face challenges each day, the key is to keep going in the best way you know how.

  16. Good letter. As I age, it’s always on my mind as to how much longer I can keep working in this way. The process of adapting to changing circumstances is not a problem, as long as we can maintain control and make the changes at our own pace. Of course, that’s not always up to us.

  17. While I haven’t suffered a physical trauma like yours, Jerry, I did begin as a poet and chane to painting. I find a great similarity between the two genres, and think my work remains the same, whether I am expressing myself in verbal or visual images. I expect you are finding the same thing, and the creative urge, frustrations, break through so, successes…they remain exactly the same. All the very best in your continuing artistic struggle, because it is only through the struggle that you find peace.

  18. Wonderful letter today Sara! Tom expressed my feelings both about Jerry’s art and poetry. . . Beautifully sensitive and evocative! Bruce, your poem was /is perfect for this time of year! Life / death we breathe it!
    Filled with gratitude for this community!

    • Twelve years ago my passion for painting came to a halt when I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I spent two years in bed, waiting for a diagnosis, so I began writing about the images of light and shadow, moonrise, sunrise and sunset in the form of poems to satisfy my creativity. I completely understand Jerry’s choice of venue. In fact, at that time, I was also only a watercolorist.

      I went into remission for twelve years and about two months ago was blindsided again by overwhelming pain in my hands, in particular. I can type, because there is a delete key, but painting is difficult again. Besides, there is no interest. The drugs they use for fibromyalgia now are antidepressants and I could give a hoot about making a painting a day, like I did in the amout of 1200 paintings on line with Dailypainters.com and Dailypaintworks.com. Oh, well. I’m writing again, but this time I’ve graduated to short stories. While I was in remission, I joined three writing groups and found that I enjoy telling “lies,” so I write fiction. I had written about 300 poems during my first bout with fibro, and this time I hope to get several good stories under my belt before … before who knows what.
      Carol Keene in Illinois

      • Carol, try hypnosis. It can ease or completely eliminate pain from fibromyalgia. There is likely an event that contributed to the relapse. This can be healed in hypnosis, and allow stmptoms to disappear or ease.

  19. Thank you all for your kind and inspiring thoughts. And thank you Sara for the oportunity to express my challenge and for bringing to light how others cope with health and mental considitions. Art and the creative forms of life, are so a part of our us, that they are, infact, a part of life. Our difficlties in expressing our creativity, make us stonger, give us depth. Thank you, again, Sara for the optuntity to share.

    • Jerry, please feel free to write to me about your circumstances. Poetry saved my soul… and I connected with some pretty awesome poets along the way. I correxpond with one of our nation’s poet laureats now. What a joy!

      • Please share some of your poetry. I don’t write a lot of poetry and I generaly only write when I’m inspired by some event or a thought. I know no other poets, but I rea as much as I can. Thanks for inviting me to correspond.

    • Valaida D' Alessio on

      This was great to hear of others who carry on with art in one way or another! I had broken my shoulder several years ago and worked while in a sling on small paintings for a long time. I am now 77 and have peripheral neuropathy, which affects my hands and feet. I can only stand for a while and then need to walk around or sit. My brain is always working , so I paint for a while til my hands cramp up. I shake out my hands and sit and read for a while. Painting takes much longer than it used to and long days and into the night are no more. I also have taken several writing classes. It is all creative and good for Jerry! I live on Maui, so I have countless distractions every day. Feel blessed!

  20. Jerry Smith, I have lived with Parkinson’s Disease in my family for as long as I can remember. First, my paternal grandfather, then my father-with early on-set Parkinsonism and now my Godfather & Uncle. I have therefore, read everything I can get my hands on which is related.
    Recently, a friend recommended a fabulous book by Norman Doidge, M.D., entitled The Brain’s Way of Healing Itself. The book contains a 70-page Chapter dedicated to Parkinson’s Disease. Largely, the Chapter is a discussion of the manner in which one man rewired his brain to overcome the symptoms of his disease….he hasn’t overcome the disease, just the symptoms, with the use of ‘conscious walking.’. The book also describes how dopamine is responsible for the initiation of any action, by urging the brain to first weigh the benefits of that action, before movement occurs.. Without dopamine, lethargy appears to set in yet others can encorage the initiation of action in a patient. I found this passage to be absolutely fascinating and most informational….I encourage you to obtain a copy of the book as I believe you would also appreciate the factual information. In fact, the whole book is a very worthwhile read. I started by highlighting points I wanted to remember, the really important points,…..soon I found most of the sentences marked up! Best of luck with your very difficult condition. I hope this helps. :) Shirley

  21. Yes, wonderful, heart-warming message to keep on creating no matter what. Sometimes depression periods can make creating difficult, or non existent. Also, I read something once about someone with Parkinson’s getting some help from taking magnesium. It is worth a try since magnesium works on the muscles. Good luck.

  22. Sara’s inspiring article and your enriching replies here reminded me of a poem I wrote years ago. This is a salute to all of you.

    Concrete
    by page highfill

    Solid works of concrete,
    like those of people, are
    cast from three ingredients,
    water, cement and aggregate,
    and, when blended together,
    like love, hope and purpose,
    powerful chemical reactions occur.

    Water mixes readily with cement,
    providing the glue in the recipe,
    yet combine only those two,
    like love and hope, without purpose,
    and the resulting adhesive will
    tend to cling vacantly to itself,
    like an engine without burden,
    or sails without wind, which flap,
    drift and dissolve possibilities.

    but, add rough aggregate, graded
    from the tiniest particles of sand,
    to fist-sized chunks of rock,
    each wrapped generously by
    the water-cement glue, so when
    stirred with care, a potent catalytic
    trio is born to serve and achieve,
    like people investing in love, hope
    and purpose, who continue to build
    solid foundations, bridges and
    soaring spans, yet unknown.

  23. I was a scientist for 35 years, but then I met up with workplace harassment and administrative burn out, so I left my creative life’s work, designing experiments to answer research questions and educational tools for teaching graduate and undergraduate students. I felt like my limbs were cut off. I turned to photography and drawing, and have had three solo exhibitions since going back to art college at 56 years of age. Now I am learning how to paint! I don’t know if that is ‘fixing’ or ‘adapting’. It’s like Saul Bellow’s ‘beings and becomers’. I believe that we can use different strategies at different times, sometimes being in the moment, other times striving to become something more; sometimes adapting, other times fixing. I congratulate everyone who has faced change in their lives.

  24. Thank you, Sara, for this wonderful post – and thank you, Jerry, for sharing your experience with us. I am not a ‘religious’ person and I belong to no organized church, but I have always thought of my artmaking as prayer – as talking to God. It’s something I can’t help needing to do. It gives me such quiet joy to know that there are so many others just like me – and who knows? maybe everyone is like this, and just needs to find confidence and a voice. For me, that ‘prayer’ is the center of the world. I’m so warmed by knowing that, as you have shown, that center is always there, and there is more than one way to connect with it.

  25. Sara……………it is strange how one illness can react differently in individual bodies. We have a member in our art group that turned to painting when Parkinsons had taken most of his other activities away. The transformation when he picked up a brush was almost unbelievable. Sadly he is gone from us now but his story was an inspiration……..Jo

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