Artist has ‘sassy’ way to fund Parkinson’s research


If you’re looking for talent, passion, innovation, creativity and an essence that can best be described as “sassy surprise” from an artist whose name you may never have heard before, you should check out Michele Keir.

After a lifetime of training in industrial design and graphic design, including study at the prestigious Pratt Institute and Rhode Island School of Design, and years of success working on projects for internationally known firms like Hasbro, Milton Bradley and others, Keir suddenly turned all her talent toward fine art a few years ago following a life-changing event.

She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“I was at work,” Keir said. “Someone was looking over my shoulder to see what I was working on, and all of a sudden they said, ‘Hey, Michele, why’s your hand shaking like that?’

“It was a question someone else asked me the week before. I wasn’t aware that I was trembling either time.

“They’ve always said that Parkinson’s isn’t inherited. But my father had it; he died in 1967. Both my sister and my brother and one of my aunts were diagnosed with it. I’ve seen a lot of it over the years,” Keir explained.

“I had digestive issues for most of a year and thought my tremors related to not eating. I’d gone to doctors before for these symptoms, but no one picked up on it. My neurologist and gastroenterologist diagnosed me on the same day,” Keir said.

“Diagnosis for Parkinson’s is difficult,” said Mary Ellen Thibodeau, Connecticut’s executive director for the American Parkinson’s Disease Association and Rhode Island’s Parkinson’s Information and Referral coordinator at Kent Hospital.

“It used to be associated with aging, but now we see diagnosis in younger people; not because Parkinson’s is affecting people earlier but because we’re getting better at diagnostics,” said Thibodeau.

“Dr. Joseph Friedman is the head of neurodegenerative disorders at Butler Hospital in Providence; he’s authored two books and co-authored a third on the subject, and he’s recognized as one of the foremost authorities in the country for diagnosing Parkinson’s. He’s trained himself to watch his patients when they’re unaware, and see how they move naturally. People with Parkinson’s are really good at concealing their early symptoms,” Thibodeau said.

“For instance, when you ask them why they aren’t swinging one of their arms when they walk, they’ll laugh and shrug and then start walking normally, swinging their arms the way they’re expected to.

“In the beginning, they can do it, but they have to consciously will themselves to.”

She said that about 60,000 new cases of Parkinson’s disease are diagnosed in the U.S. each year.

Part of Friedman’s research is investigating the role of genetics in Parkinson’s, which Keir can relate to.

“Because of my family, I guess I knew I had it before they told me I did,” she said. “I could see many of the symptoms.

“There’s the fatigue – you just get so tired. Insomnia is a common symptom. With me, I’d be working on something; I’d get very involved and wind up staying up all night. So you just get more and more exhausted and stay that way.”

Keir’s left hand would begin to shake, she recalls, but when she immersed herself in her art, she discovered the tremors would diminish.

“One day I decided to paint a colorful design on my nails. I liked the way it turned out. It became a kind of therapy. While I created these designs, the tremors went away. I called them ‘sassy’ nail designs, and took pictures of them to put in a journal,” she said.

“Two days later I was inspired to use Photoshop on my computer to incorporate a photo of my hand into a larger piece of art. On my iPad I use my fingers as paintbrushes. My art was often becoming more abstract and surreal.

“Inspired from reading about others with PD, I decided to use my sudden passion to raise both research funds and awareness for Parkinson’s disease.”

She said she began to create furiously.

“In about nine months I did about 300 pieces. I liked it. It was fun. I’ve always enjoyed doing anything creative.

“I began to find places to exhibit my art. But before very long, I just didn’t have the strength or the energy to haul my work around and hang them, then take everything down and load them up.”

She started a website, and then started another, to show some of her work.

“What I wanted to do was create my art, sell it to people who would appreciate it, and turn everything I made over to research to find a cure for Parkinson’s.

“But I wanted the research money I made to go specifically to research in Rhode Island. That’s what we were able to arrange. I think I’ve raised about $6,000 so far,” Keir said.

Mary Ellen Thibodeau confirmed that number.

“And, yes, we worked it out so that everything she raises goes directly to fund only research in Rhode Island for Parkinson’s. That’s what she wants,” Thibodeau said.

Keir has been married to Richard Blackman since 1974, and both her son, Benjamin, 34, and daughter, Rachael, 31, have become research scientists working in related fields; one in Virginia and the other in Minnesota. They are all highly supportive of her work.

Keir’s most recent project to generate Parkinson’s research dollars is named Parkie Pet Portraits. A client can send a photo of his or her pet to Keir, and she creates one of her unique portraits of the pet for a $100 donation to Rhode Island Parkinson’s research. She shows samples of her work on her website (keirartforpd.webstarts.

com) and makes arrangements through her e-mail, keirdes@ Michele Keir is also a featured artist this month on the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation’s online gallery.

It’s been noted before in a number of news stories that there seems to be some correlation between creativity and Parkinson’s disease. Call it a not-so-rare coincidence. A number of high-profile artists in various fields, including actor Michael J. Fox, for example, and, as announced this past summer, singer Linda Ronstadt, are only two prominent examples of talented people diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Is there a connection?

“I’ve never read anything in the research that verified a connection between artistic talent and Parkinson’s,” Mary Ellen Thibodeau said. “But speaking anecdotally, I personally know many very creative people in Southern New England who’ve been diagnosed with Parkinson’s.”

Michele Keir, though, is the only “sassy” one.


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