Michele Keir had always been an artist, but she hasn’t always suffered from Parkinson’s disease. Keir was diagnosed two years ago at age 60, and since then she has been creating a new, special kind of artwork.
Keir knew she was an artist at a young age.
“When I was five years old in kindergarten I was painting a life-sized clown, about three feet tall,” she said. “One day after school my teacher told my mom I was an artist, and I heard her. From then on, I knew I was an artist.”
Hailing from Long Island, Keir moved to Rhode Island to work for Hasbro. She graduated from the Pratt Institute with a degree in industrial design, and she began working for Hasbro on Weebles – the same ones that “wobble but don’t fall down.” Keir sketched and painted prototype designs for Weebles and worked on other toys for the company. While in Rhode Island, she attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where she learned how to edit photos using Photoshop, a technique that she uses in the artwork she creates today.
When she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease (PD) she learned that she would have to cope with a tremor in her left hand. She found that painting her nails, something she had done all her life, helped to soothe the tremor. One day, Keir noticed that her elaborately painted nails matched the colors of a flower garden outside her window, so she snapped a shot of her hand with the flowers in the background. From then on, she began documenting each of her nail designs with a photograph of her left hand.
Eventually, she decided to use her Photoshop skills to enhance her photographs. What she ended up with were abstract pieces that looked less like photographs of her hand and more like handcrafted paintings. After showing the pieces off to some clients and co-workers, Keir realized that there might be a chance she could sell her work.
For the next nine months, Keir kept busy painting her nails, taking pictures and creating digital masterpieces. She put some of her completed pieces (which she calls “Sassy Nail Art”) into frames and sold them for $50 apiece. Today, she’s created nearly 300 pieces and sold approximately 80.
All of the money she receives for her masterpieces goes to the American Parkinson’s Disease Association. She’s specifically asked the organization to recycle all of the money she raises within Rhode Island.
She said with the money she’s generated there’s nearly enough to form a grant for PD research in Rhode Island. There is currently no cure for Parkinson’s disease.
Keir is not the only member of her family to be diagnosed with PD. Her father had the disease and died from it when she was 18.
“He had it at a time before [treatment] was available,” she explained. “They wanted to give him a lobotomy, but my mother wouldn’t allow it.”
Prior to her diagnosis two years ago, Keir began experiencing digestive issues and tremors and finally decided to see a doctor about her symptoms. He gave her a battery of tests similar to those one might use to test sobriety.
“He had me walk in a straight line and try to touch my finger from his palm to the tip of my nose,” she said. She failed both tests.
Keir’s brother and sister also have PD, which they all genetically inherited from their father.
“It’s rare for it to be genetic,” said Keir.
Most people, she explained, get it from environmental factors like toxins and free radicals. Keir’s children, both of whom are scientists, may potentially carry the genetic markers for PD.
Her son, however, is an evolutionary geneticist and tested himself for PD. He did not find any of the genetic markers for the disease.
Parkinson’s disease causes many symptoms outside of external tremors. Keir experiences a tremor in her left hand but also internal tremors and digestive difficulties. She said the disease may also cause things like dandruff, sores on the tongue and sleepless nights.
In addition to painting her nails, Keir is on an anti-dopamine drug to calm her tremors. The side effects of the drug are often as frustrating as the disease itself. Keir said the anti-dopamine drug causes her to compulsively eat.
“Forty percent of people that take it have a side effect of compulsive behavior,” she said.
Since she began her medication, Keir has gained 50 pounds.
“I would wake up in the middle of the night every hour to eat something,” she said.
Eventually, Keir began sucking on hard, sugar-free candy to curb her cravings. Despite being sugar-free, the candy still had a devastating effect on her teeth, and she will now have to undergo extensive dental work. Keir said she is a big advocate of making people aware of the side effects of PD treatments.
Keir is a firm believer in research and science and hopes that through her artwork she can help cure her disease.
Keir’s “Sassy Nail Art” has been displayed in libraries and galleries throughout the state and will be on display in Warwick during the month of February at The Phyllis Siperstein Tamarisk Assisted Living on 3 Shalom Drive. The exhibit will kick off with a reception at Tamarisk on Feb. 12 from 2 to 5 p.m. Those wishing to attend must RSVP to Tamarisk by calling 732-0037 or by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. This exhibit will be on display at Tamarisk from Feb. 12-26 daily. Each framed piece of Keir’s 14” x 11” “Sassy Nail Art” will be on sale for a $50 donation.