Painting with Parkinson’s

03/08/2012

Wayne Clark’s hands don’t stop shaking. Not when they’re dangling, loose and forgotten, at his sides. Not when they’re spontaneously raised as a gesture in conversation. Not when they’re thrust outwards to receive the warm embrace of a family member or an old friend. When they’re at rest, near his hips, his large, pale fingers smack repeatedly against his clothing, producing a rhythmic clicking sound.

These tremors—the most noticeable symptom of the Parkinson’s disease Clark has grappled with for over 15 years—have made it nearly impossible for the 85-year-old to unwrap medicine packets, eat with a fork, dial the numbers on a cell phone. Soon, he believes, he’ll likely be unable to button his shirt in the morning. 

Not that you would notice any of this by looking at his paintings. The former Point Reyes Station resident’s oil on canvas works are intricately detailed and faithfully representational; their placid subjects and soft lighting frequently evoke the kind of nostalgic, intimate photographs that might hang on a relative’s living room wall.

An exhibit of Clark’s work, featuring portraits and scenes from both West Marin and the artist’s native Kansas, is on display at Toby’s Gallery through the end of March. The paintings on display are both old and new, although most were done in the past several years, well after the onset of Clark’s Parkinson’s. One, a portrait of two brown horses standing before a light blue sky, was completed a month ago.  

As a free-spirited high-schooler in Wichita, Clark wanted to be a fighter pilot. After beginning engineering studies on a football scholarship at what is now Wichita State University, he joined the Air Force toward the end of World War II. When the war ended, he returned to school still committed to a future in engineering. That is, until he enrolled in his first art class.

“I pretty well decided [on an art career] after I took that first course,” Clark said. “It opened a whole new career for me that I had never really thought of.”

But he had always been something of an artist.

“In high school I got in trouble one time because I would doodle on the back of my notebook. I did it because I enjoyed it; kids would come by and they’d look at it, they’d enjoy my books. I did this fat lady standing there—somebody came by and looked at it and wrote ‘Mrs. Braley’ on it. Mrs. Braley was the teacher, and she had to walk by shortly after that and saw that.

“I got punished. She said I had to draw it 50 times. On the 49th one I drew her like this,” Clark said, making a funny face and sticking his thumbs in his ears.

“I thought it was funny. She didn’t. I had to draw it 50 more times. I can still draw that fat lady!”

Not long out of college Clark got a job doing manual illustrations for Boeing, for whom he would work for the next 13 years. His professional life would, in fact, be dedicated to technical drawing: After Boeing, Clark spent several decades as an illustrator for educational filmstrips; in the ‘70s he switched to college textbooks—nursing, physics, biology, even English as a Second Language—and later also illustrated how-to books.    

Over the decades the illustrator managed to occasionally paint on the side, but his passion was curbed by financial responsibilities he never thought could be met by a form of art that for him was solely recreational.   

“I’d sneak in paintings until guilt was overtaking me or my wife would tell me that the refrigerator’s empty,” he said. “I felt guilty painting because I did it for pure pleasure. There was no money to it, and I had a family to support, so I felt guilty. I was wasting my time not making money.” 

On Clark’s salary, the illustrator and his wife, Joan, now deceased, raised seven kids, all of whom became artists of some form. “We call it the family curse,” joked oldest daughter Cyndie Wooley, herself a technical illustrator for Medtronic who previously collaborated with her father and one brother on textbook illustrations. “I mean it goes back generations. We’re all out of our minds.”

Even when finances were stretched, Wooley and her sister Judy said their father—witty and lighthearted—always made sure the busy house was filled with laughter. “There were lean years,” Wooley said. “But we were such a tight family and very close and very loving. He’s made our lives so much fun and so joyous.”

Clark followed his eldest daughter to West Marin in 1986, in part to be closer to Bay Area publishers. But there the tremors he had been experiencing for years began to get worse. By ’99, he said, he was physically unable to continue with the illustrations that had afforded him his livelihood for decades.

“I put it in the mail,” Clark said of his last book. “And I was packed. I was through with illustration. I give up. And that’s when I headed back to Kansas. I couldn’t live on social security in Marin County but I could live on it in Sedgwick County.”

Clark now says that the disease that has severely limited his physical capacity has, strangely, also liberated him.

“As a matter of fact I’m not really upset with Parkinson’s,” he said. “As a matter of fact I’m a little grateful to it. It got me out of the rat race. I don’t have deadlines.”

While he was working as an illustrator, Clark usually managed to complete two or three paintings a year. Last year, almost a decade after his belated diagnosis of the progressive neurological disorder, he completed 28.

Seated in one corner of a drafty Toby’s Gallery in downtown Point Reyes Station earlier this week, Clark was energetic and talkative in a buttoned shirt and navy blue sweater. Besides the hand tremors, Parkinson’s causes his head to occasionally bob up and down, and the muscles in his neck to cramp, a painful symptom for which he receives Botox injections. He occasionally has trouble controlling his salivary glands, and the words that come from under his thick white mustache can be muddled.

But none of this seems to bother him much. The great-grandfather laughs heartily and often, basking in the company of his large family and graciously receiving the compliments of gallery visitors. He seems completely sincere when he says that the disease, even as it has become a constant companion in his life—like wearing clothes, he says—has never dampened his spirit. “I’m having more fun now than I’ve ever had in my life,” he says.

At best, Clark’s paintings are emotionally pleasant, if perhaps romanticized, works capable of transporting the viewer into the winsome scenes depicted between their wooden frames: an empty beach with white foaming waves, a large grain elevator amid a field of golden wheat, a straight stretch of dirt road beneath an endless Kansas sky. 

His sharp sense of perspective and strong technical background is ever present, with even the slightest structural details meticulously accounted for. “By the time you get the rocks in there,” he said of one painting of a stone arch bridge, “these rocks have to take the weight of everything so that’s got to be properly engineered. The technical perspective in that is absolutely essential.”

For a while, Clark said the growing unsteadiness of his hands made painting a nightmare. In an attempt to stabilize his erratic brush, he would use one hand to support the other, moving both together in short intervals across the canvas. The method made an already slow process prohibitively laborious.

Quitting painting, however, was never an option. Instead, Clark rebuilt his easel several times, eventually settling on a system of three pieces of wood—one on each side of the canvas intersected by one moveable piece across—that sufficiently supported his hand at a distance that also allowed him to work without inadvertently smearing the surface of a still-wet painting.     

“The hardest part about it was sawing the wood,” Clark said of the contraption he designed. “They [Clark’s children] make fun of my sawing because it’s not square, but by darn it holds together. It works for me.”    

The improvisation reveals the upbeat, pragmatic attitude Clark has adopted in dealing with the limitations brought on by Parkinson’s.

“This is what you contend with,” he said. “There are certain things you just don’t do anymore. There are certain things that you find out some other way of doing. If it becomes a problem, I kind of wonder, ‘Oh, what am I going to do about that?’”

Yet even as he recognizes his increasing limitations, there is one thing he says he will never give up. Breathing and painting, he says, are in the same category. “Both are essential to life,” Clark said. “If I stopped my breathing or I stopped my painting it would be difficult to exist.”

Not that the artist is going to waste much time thinking about it. Later in the afternoon he had plans to drive around West Marin to gather new material before heading back to Wichita. 

“I’m going out to see some of the scenery out here that I wanted to paint, that I’d been thinking about over the years,” he said. “I want to go take a look at certain places—I’d like to get over to the daffodil fields over there on Bear Valley Road. I’d like to get over there because they’re in bloom right now.”