Artists with Parkinson's disease paint a new picture of hope

A made-in-Manitoba, one-of-a-kind art class is changing the lives of those who thought they'd lost their lives -- after being diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.

'When I do art, I feel like me again,' says participant in one-of-a-kind class for Manitobans with Parkinson's

Suzy Spearman discovered a new talent and lease on life, after joining an art class exclusively for people living with Parkinson's disease. (Travis Golby/CBC)

A made-in-Manitoba, one-of-a-kind art class is changing the lives of those who thought they'd lost their lives after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

It's called the Shake It Up Creative Arts Group, and, says its founder Janice Horn, with the stroke of a brush, they help people living with Parkinson's to picture a brighter future.

"I feel like 'me' again when I do art," says Horn, a former graphic designer who was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2006. "I pick up my brush, I don't feel like a Parkinson's patient. I even forget to take my meds when I do art."

That's why with the support of Parkinson's Canada, she launched the bi-monthly art class, the only one of its kind in Canada, open to anyone living with the progressive, neurodegenerative disease.

The studio is small, tucked away in the Parkinson's Canada Manitoba office. The concept is simple: companionship, coffee, conversation and painting, regardless of the tremors, stiffness or the limited movement that comes with a Parkinson's diagnosis.

"Actually, you get to use different parts of your brain, so it actually helps you deal with your symptoms better," Horn explains. "Maybe you can't write anymore, but you find you can use a paintbrush."

Horn's not expecting artistic excellence.

"You can just draw a blob; I don't care. It doesn't have to go in an art gallery. It just has to be something you like doing."

She does, however, urge creativity.

"Rogue, I call it. Just go rogue," she says.

In her case, on one occasion, that meant turning off her deep brain stimulation, a surgically implanted "brain pacemaker" that sends electrical impulses that target her movement and control her tremors.

Horn clicked the device to turn it off, and the tremors returned with a vengeance.

"I'm going to try to paint my heartbeat with the real Parkinson's showing itself," she says, her arms trembling as she tries to control the paintbrush. "It's so hard."

Watch what happens when Horn turns off the brain stimulation:

Janice Horn paints with Parkinson's 1:13

Winnipegger Suzy Spearman doesn't have the Parkinson's tremors, but the disease robbed her of her movement, leaving her stiff, halting and dragging her legs, with arms that suddenly stopped working — a bitter blow to the lifelong athlete.

"Ringette, volleyball, hockey," recalls Spearman. "Movement was my everything."

That all changed, slowly and insidiously, over a two-year span. She couldn't raise her hands to wash her hair. Then she couldn't walk without dragging her foot. Then she couldn't write on the chalkboard without her arm freezing mid-sentence. 

She hoped these were the side-effects of the antidepressants she was taking to fight a depression so deep she wondered if she'd ever escape it.

Instead, she learned it was Parkinson's, and her depression, in fact, was part of it.

The diagnosis was staggering.

"I had my feet pulled out from under me," she says, simply.

Find out how Spearman realized she had Parkinson's:

Suzy Spearman describes the journey that lead to her Parkinson's diagnosis 1:18

In 2017, Spearman met Janice Horn. Horn invited her to Shake It Up. Spearman laughed.

"I said 'I've never done art. I skipped out of art class or got kicked out of art class and went to the gym,'" she says, laughing again.

After attending one class, however, Spearman was hooked. 

"The camaraderie is wonderful; everyone has Parkinson's, so no one is self-conscious," she says. 

She was also amazed.

"I can't handwrite very well anymore, but I can use a paintbrush," she says. "Painting helps me say what Parkinson's won't."

What's more, she says, she's learned she's good at it.

"Janice said 'See? I told you,' Spearman says, laughing. "It's fun. It's different. I'm using all the crayons in the crayon box now. Not just the athletic one anymore."

A made-in-Manitoba, one-of-a-kind art class is changing the lives of those who thought they'd lost their lives after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. 3:24

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