ear filters through the rigid lines and searing swaths of color of “Stuck in the Night.”
Wild, wide eyes peer out from the canvas, formed by swirling high-strung lines. Nostrils flare, and jagged ridges of orange, yellow and blue streak through.
“I call it emotional scratching onto the surface. It shows how I was feeling; you can tell I was going through a rough time. That’s a lot of anxiety and sleeplessness. It’s like my inner beast,” said artist Wendell Lowe. “I’m trying to capture what my Parkinson’s is like.”
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Parkinson’s disease has forced Lowe to evolve as an artist. While it has robbed him of the ability to make detailed brush strokes and intricate drawings, it has also unlocked a creativity that he never knew existed in his mind.
The Indianapolis artist’s work is more varied and eclectic than it had ever been before, with much of it representing the angst, the anxiety, the anger and the acceptance of his disease.
“My ideas are always flowing. With the changes going on in my brain, some things are degenerating. But as those cells are gone, something is tapping into my brain that has never been tapped into before,” Lowe said. “There’s this extra burst of creativity. I’m doing artwork that I never thought was possible.”
Those pieces will be featured in a special exhibition starting April 7 at the Indiana Landmark Center’s Rapp Family Gallery in Indianapolis.
Rows of plastic pill boxes, each compartment marked to represent a different day of the week, had been laid out in the front room of Lowe’s home.
Those pills boxes are his lifeline, Lowe said. Forgetting to take the medication that keeps his Parkinson’s disease in check can lead to a drastic deterioration of body control.
“If we don’t stay on track, we really become a mess,” Lowe said.
The importance of those boxes to a Parkinson’s patient will be implemented into his next centerpiece artwork. Lowe plans to use the pill boxes in conjunction with a painting of Muhammad Ali, who famously battled Parkinson’s disease until his death in 2016.
The painting, based on a photograph of Ali with his hands to his temples, will be adorned with the pill boxes. Ali’s inspirational quotes and the negative symptoms of Parkinson’s will be embodied in printed words hung on wires, all meeting at a central “third eye” on the painting.
The concept will focus on Ali’s daily struggle with the disease, Lowe said.
“The third eye represents the inner-consciousness idea, things that are deep down into your psyche. Obviously, (Ali) had Parkinson’s, and I wanted to do something to represent him,” Lowe said.
Pill boxes feature prominently in what is Lowe’s most recognized piece. “Day By Day,” a stylized photograph made to look like a watercolor painting, features the boxes and pills as the central metaphor for Parkinson’s disease.
The painting has been featured in national publications and Parkinson’s awareness campaigns throughout the nation.
Lowe had a creative flair since he was a child, excelling in art during adolescence, high school and up through his time at Ball State University. He knew he wanted to use that talent in his adult life, and opted on graphic design as his career path.
He worked as a graphic designer for many years before transitioning into teaching art to emotionally disturbed teenagers through Indianapolis Public Schools. He also worked on his own projects — abstracts and pastels, painting unique furniture pieces as well as turning vintage televisions into fish tanks.
But in the span of two weeks in 2009, Lowe was given a devastating one-two punch that changed his life. He was noticing problems with his motor skills, aching muscles and a shuffling gait and slight shaking in his extremities, and after visiting the doctor, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
The thought of succumbing to an insidious neurological disorder that slowly would rob him of his body control was terrifying. But before he could even process what his new life would be like, Lowe received more bad news: a routine colonoscopy had revealed that he also has stage 3 colon cancer.
“It was way too much. I wanted to crawl into a hole and never leave. I was that depressed,” he said. “But after a while, I had to come out to do something about everything.”
Surgery to remove the cancer, hampered by complications from the operation, was followed by six months of chemotherapy. Lowe made it through the cancer treatment and is in remission. But he found that the Parkinson’s disease has been exacerbated.
He was having trouble holding scissors, writing and demonstrating strokes during his art classes. When he started having difficulty keeping track of his schedule and which classes were being held where, Lowe knew it was time to refocus his life. He retired from teaching to devote himself to his artwork full-time.
“Cancer is like this alien inside of you. You just want it to go away and get out of there and never come back,” Lowe said. “But Parkinson’s is so much different. It’s like a storm in the forecast. You know it’s coming, but you don’t know when and how it’s going to hit. You suffer with it slowly building up.”
Parkinson’s disease doesn’t allow for the fine skills needed for detailed painting and drawing anymore, so Lowe improvised.
He uses his fingers to paint.
Though his hands and legs tremor and shake, when he pushes down on the canvas with his fingers, he gets a smooth drawing.
“This is like advanced finger-painting,” he said.
The works reflect Lowe’s daily struggle with the disease. Times when he feels the shakiest and most stressed result in dark scenes with knotted and twisted lines and forms spread out on the canvas.
Other paintings, done when Lowe felt better, are more smooth and relaxed. One work displays a wide smile; even if his facial muscles won’t always cooperate, Lowe still does have extreme happiness.
“Everything ends up subtly becoming a self-portrait of what I’m going through,” he said. “With a lot of these, I don’t have any pre-planning on what I want to draw. I start with something familiar like the eyes, and let my feelings go from there. It’s amazing what shows up sometimes.”
Art has been a life-saving outlet for Lowe. But his saving grace has been with Rock Steady Boxing, a fitness program aimed at people with Parkinson’s disease.
Rock Steady Boxing creates workouts to help Parkinson’s patients stay active. Research has shown that regular movement slows the progression of the disease, said Kristy Rose Follmar, head coach at Rock Steady Boxing.
“They are told when they’re diagnosed that they’re going to have to change their whole regimen and get on a better diet, be on a cocktail of medications and get on an exercise program,” she said. “A lot of people don’t know what that entails. What we’ve done is create a curriculum specific to those with Parkinson’s disease.”
The Rock Steady concept has spread from a single Indianapolis gym to more than 300 affiliates and programs throughout the world, including at The Social of Greenwood.
About two years ago, Lowe started attending Rock Steady Boxing sessions in northeast Indianapolis. The workouts gave him renewed energy, better mobility and seemed to stop the disease in its tracks.
“Before it, I was going to just to sit in a rocking chair and rust up. It saved my life,” he said.
Lowe’s story and artwork have converged to spotlight this upcoming show. He has been featured on local television and Indianapolis WFYI radio.
The fact that his work is getting so much reaction is rewarding. But Lowe also wants to use the opportunity to help those who have helped him.
Rock Steady Boxing is partnering with Lowe in presenting the exhibition, spotlighting April as Parkinson’s Awareness Month. A portion of his sales from the evening will be donated to Rock Steady to support its mission as well.
“I hope that people come see the work and see the face of Parkinson’s, see what I’m going through — and if that helps them, that’s my whole idea,” he said.
Wendell Lowe: This is My Parkinson’s
What: An art show featuring the work of Indianapolis artist Wendell Lowe, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2009.
Where: Indiana Landmarks Center Rapp Family Gallery, 1201 Central Ave., Indianapolis
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday from April 7-21
Opening reception: April 7, 6 to 9 p.m. Admission is free, and the event is open to the public.
What is Parkinson’s disease?
Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder caused by the loss of dopamine-producing brain cells. When a majority of dopamine-producing cells has died, patients may begin showing symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
What are the symptoms?
Early symptoms are subtle and occur gradually; however, as the percentage of dopamine-producing cell deaths increases, symptoms may begin to interfere with daily activities. The primary symptoms of Parkinson’s disease include tremors, rigidity, slowness of movement and impaired coordination.
What is the prognosis, and what treatments are available for Parkinson’s disease?
There is currently no cure for Parkinson’s disease. Current treatment options focus on reducing the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and improving the quality of life for patients. Parkinson’s disease by itself is not fatal, but it does get worse with time.
How do these treatments work?
The most common therapies are drugs that increase levels of dopamine in the brain or mimic the effects of dopamine in the brain. These drugs help improve movement and prolong the amount of time that patients can live normal, productive lives. The second type of therapy affects other neurotransmitters and can help reduce tremors and muscle stiffness. A third type of therapy is used to treat symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease that are not associated with dopamine production.
What else helps?
Evidence-based research shows positive effects of exercise on the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. For many years, exercise was not a recommended rehabilitation strategy for persons diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but a growing body of research suggests that exercise and physical therapy may have a far greater effect on Parkinson’s disease symptoms than previously believed.
— Information from the Indiana Parkinson Foundation
Rock Steady Boxing
Where: The Social of Greenwood
What: A class for people with Parkinson’s disease to fight their disease by providing non-contact boxing-style fitness programs that improve their quality of life and sense of self-worth.
- Levels 1 and 2: 9:30 to 11 a.m. Tuesday
- Levels 3 and 4: noon to 1:30 p.m. and 2 to 3:30 p.m. Wednesday
- All levels: 2:30 to 4 p.m. and 5:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesday; 1 to 2:30 p.m. and 3 to 4:30 p.m. Friday; 9:15 to 10:45 a.m. Saturday
Details: Prior to attending a class, participants must meet with our instructors for a 30-minute individual assessment and have their doctor complete a medical release prior to participating in their first class.
Cost: The cost of this assessment is $10, payable to the trainers. Classes cost $10 per session and punch cards for multiple classes can be purchased at a discount.
Information: Call Kristi Moore at 317-966-3417 to schedule an assessment.
Where: Mount Pleasant Christian Church Community Life Center, 407 N. Bluff Road, Greenwood
What: An exercise program that allows Parkinson’s patients the opportunity for physical recovery and prevention, and leaves room for reflection and connection.
When: 4 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, 2 to 3:30 p.m. Thursday, and 10:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Satuday.
Information: Contact Penny Clayton, wellness coordinator, email@example.com
Indiana Parkinson Foundation
What: An organization focused on advocating and improving the lives of people with Parkinson’s disease