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Combating disease with art

Artist Charles Burt has Parkinson’s disease, his artwork serves as both therapy and fuel for his passion

June 8, 2016

One year ago, Charles Burt was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  Though he knows that the disease will never leave him, he chooses to fight it with creativity.

A student at Pierce, Burt has taken art classes such as Acrylics, Watercolor, and Drawing 101 with professors David Roholt and Danella Sydow.  This year, two of his paintings were selected to be featured in Pierce’s yearly art show.

“East State Penitentiary,” an acrylic painting based off of a photograph Burt took in Pennsylvania, had patrons thinking it was an actual photo at first glance.  But perhaps the more striking work was “Medusa,” a watercolor painting depicting the anguish of the mythological character of the same name, cursed forever to turn anyone who looked at her to stone.

Despite this, Burt said that he disliked working with watercolor, and said he was surprised by “Medusa’s” inclusion.  He said that “Medusa” was like a “child you keep in the basement,” as its intensely negative expression was disturbing to him, and he had to turn it away from his bed every night so that he wouldn’t look at it.  

To Burt, art is a lifelong interest.  “My whole life I’ve loved art, I’ve always loved drawing, and I’ve always enjoyed doing sort of ultra realist stuff.”  Burt said that he enjoys the perfectionist aspect of art.  

He finds putting in the amount of time and effort it takes to make his work “just right” gratifying, and takes satisfaction in the feeling of seeing other people having to take out their glasses to discern whether one of his paintings is a photograph.

“That’s very cool to me, I always enjoy when people say that they think it looks like a photograph.”

Burt said that though his twenty years in the military may not have made him a perfectionist, it brought out that thinking and made him realize it, and learn to use that perfectionism in his work.

But his painting serves another purpose other than sheer enjoyment: working through his Parkinson’s.  

“Whenever I get excited or anxious, my hand starts to tremble.  But the focus of painting and drawing, it basically goes away.  So it’s kind of a break for me to be able to draw and paint.  There’s an added gratification, I think, to see that I’m still able to do art with Parkinson’s.”

Burt’s Parkinson’s, which so far only appears in his right arm, is what is known as a “resting tremor.”  A resting tremor manifests as shakes when the body is at rest, meaning that the tremors go away when it is moving.  

The slow and precise movements of painting and calligraphy are what calms Burt’s tremors, and he enters a sort of “zen state” where he no longer notices his Parkinson’s until he stops moving his hand again.  

Parkinson’s also affects the dopamine producing centers of the brain, which can also lead to conditions outside of the physical, such as depression.  For Burt, the gratification he gets from his art gives him the dopamine release he needs.  Essentially, painting is therapy for Burt.

“What I’ve learned to do is a lot of small 6x8 canvases.  There’s a lot of gratification because it’s very quick, very easy, and I can do a lot of them.  So it gives me that burst of dopamine that I don’t normally get.  It’s therapeutic in many ways.”

Although medication can help with the symptoms of Parkinson’s, it is not a disease that can truly be “cured” with modern medicine, and over time the body can build up an immunity to the medication, such as in the case of famous actor Michael J. Fox.

The unfortunate truth is that over time, the Parkinson’s will get worse for Burt.  It will begin to not just further afflict his right arm, but also other parts of his body, such as his legs which would cause complications with walking.

“I get a bit touchy when people say things like ‘I hope you beat it.’”  Burt said.  “It’s not like cancer.”

Burt said that the thought of the Parkinson’s affecting him to the point that he can no longer paint is “a big fear.”  Already, it can be exhausting to live with.  He described his active Parkinson’s as like “holding a ball or a cup all day long.”  

However, Burt uses these feelings of fear and concern to further fuel his passion.  “It pushes me to paint more,” he said.

“A lot of times when I’m doing my painting, I fear that it will be my last one.  But that’s the other thing about this disease: you have to keep in the moment.  If I start worrying about it, that’s when my hand starts tremoring and causing other issues.  So I have to keep myself in the present, and painting does that.”

Burt, as a military retiree, is able to support himself enough to spend most of his time painting.  However, he being able to sell his paintings isn’t his main goal, rather, he wants to share them with others by seeing them in galleries.  

Before, his artwork has been featured in Tacoma Community College’s art gallery and he was “thrilled” to have more of his work featured in Pierce’s.

“I just want to paint.”  Burt said.  “It would be neat to have stuff that sells, but what I love is people being able to give feedback on what I do.”

Burt plans to continue his painting, and expressed interest in doing a series of paintings after “Medusa” based on more mythological figures.

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