Painting with Parkinsons

By Wendy Johnson

Cards say so much. They can be funny. Consoling. Just plain lovely. A beautiful handmade card—with or without words—is all the more special when painted by someone using art as therapy. So when I was told by Halie Rubenis, Business Development and Retail Manager at Agency in Braddon, that the beautiful cards I was buying for Christmas were the result of an innovative art program called Painting with Parkinsons, I felt quite emotional.

You see, everyone wants to make a mark in life. Indeed, in so many ways it’s all about the mark. And making a mark is precisely what a group of 12 Canberrans with Parkinson’s do when they gather to paint.Parkinsons 3

Painting with Parkinsons Canberra was founded at the end of 1994 in the Botanic Gardens by artist Nancy Tingey, an Accredited Professional Member of Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre (since 1996). Nancy wanted to combine her role as a community artist and art curator with caring for her husband Bob who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s when he was 46.

Bob has been part of the group since the beginning and was the youngest member when he joined. He draws on past experiences to paint and so it’s no surprise his art often makes reference to geological formations. Bob had led a busy life as a geologist, working in many countries and making seven journeys to Antarctica.

Parkinson’s is a progressive neurological condition that affects people from all walks of life. It’s sometimes called a ‘movement disorder’. So why encourage painting? Painting is successful because it’s a magical unravelling of a series of steps.

“You create a mark on the paper. Then you create another mark. And another,” says Nancy. “It’s almost a linear process and people with Parkinson’s can cope with that quite easily. What they can’t cope with is a whole lot of stimuli presented at once.”Parkinsons 2

Today, Painting with Parkinsons is recognised as one of the most effective art therapy programs in the world. Many who paint discover inner talents and abilities. Bob’s hand moves involuntarily, for example, but this goes away when he paints. “Although he had never painted before, he took to it like he did any other activity in his life—with great enthusiasm and energy,” says Nancy.

The group produces work that is shown in exhibitions, which Nancy says is extraordinary and wonderful. Bob’s painting Light was featured in the United States Parkinson’s Disease Foundation calendar for 2013. Katrina Muir, diagnosed with Parkinson’s at age 55, first attended the Canberra group to observe, but soon found her work being used as a logo to promote the GOLD dance group at the Canberra Dance Theatre. “Painting with Parkinsons is a place where I can just be myself,” says Katrina. “I don’t have to explain my symptoms to anyone and am treated with much respect. I feel treasured for the person I am.”

Art helps group members lose themselves in their work, which takes their minds off the illness. Ann Nugent—who worked as a teacher, writer, editor and theatre critic—was diagnosed with Parkinson’s some years ago. She says painting alleviates her symptoms and encourages her to experiment with her art.

Halie says Agency has just received a whole new range of cards by Painting with Parkinsons. The cards are also available at the Handmade Shop. And Painting with Parkinsons will be the first exhibition group to showcase at the new National Disability Insurance Scheme building. Seven works will be exhibited for about three months.Parkinsons 1

For more information on Parkinson’s Disease visit

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