SAFETY HARBOR — Catherine Bennett, watercolor artist and teacher, remembers when her gifted hands began to betray her.
“My right pinky had a twitch,” she said. “It was enough for me to notice, but it didn’t bother me.”
That was April 2005. A month later, it was still there.
The symptoms were creeping up slowly, a little at a time, but still more and more. That’s the way Parkinson’s disease works.
She went to her personal physician, then to a neurologist.
“He said it was Parkinson’s. I said, “No.” I didn’t want that,” she said.
She went to another neurologist, and then a third. Each time, the same answer. “Then it just got worse.”
No longer able to control a brush well enough to make the fine strokes for the watercolor portraits she loves, Bennett might have given up.
Of course, she did not.
“This has always been my career,” she said. “It’s a vocation for me. I can’t not do it.”
So, at age 54, Bennett the artist is finding another way. It is a watercolor form called pouring.
Her motor skills are sufficient enough that by applying pressure to a surface she can sketch with a pencil or charcoal. But rather than brush, she mixes colors and pours them onto the page, filling in her sketches and masking areas that will be another color.
She hasn’t lost her love for light and color, or her artistic ability to mix them, though she mostly is drawing landscapes now rather than portraits.
“It’s not where my heart is, but it’s what I can do,” she said with a shrug, as she stood in a corridor at the Safety Harbor Public Library where 15 of her original paintings and prints are on display through February.
Bennett has developed the pouring technique well enough that she teaches it in adult art classes at the Dunedin Fine Arts Center and in areas near Syracuse, N.Y. She and her husband, Richard, split time between their home at On Top of the World in Clearwater and the Syracuse area, where she was born, raised four children — now ages 24-30 — and taught art.
While she regretted that the Parkinson’s symptoms forced her give up school teaching in 2009, “I also thought of it as a great opportunity to do my artwork,” she said. She still paints every day, but not for as long. “My energy is low.”
Her husband, she said, has a been a great inspiration, pushing her to keep working, not allowing her to give in to the disease. A devoted Catholic, she also said she senses God’s presence and spirit in her struggle to keep painting and working through her symptoms. “I have this feeling that it’s part of my purpose,” she said. “That’s a real force for me.”
But that’s not where it stops for her.
That same force, that same sense of purpose, has led her to a medical clinic in Cleveland, where neurologists are helping Parkinson’s patients like Bennett fight back. On May 5, she will have surgery that promises temporarily to keep her tremors from worsening. She got an appointment at the clinic through a friend and was selected for the surgery after a series of interviews and tests. Not all patients qualify. “It is a great gift,” she said.
Her surgeon, Andre Machado, will implant electronic leads into each side of her brain. The leads are connected by wire to a pacemaker in her chest that will send electronic impulses to the leads, intercepting the brain messages that cause the tremors and symptoms, she said. The pacemaker can be adjusted as the disease progresses.
“They’re not guaranteeing anything. But there is a 99 percent chance it will give me five years minimum when my motor skills won’t get worse,” she said.
“It’s not a cure. But it definitely improves the quality of your life on a day-to-day basis.”
Last summer she had an art sale in New York to raise money for her medical expenses, and is thinking about having another one in Safety Harbor. Her originals and the matted prints on display in the library are for sale, too. More of her artwork, and her background, is available on her business website, ArtworkTen.com
No matter the method of her work, Bennett still has an audience. One of her portraits, she said, hangs in the office of New York Yankees Manager Joe Girardi — the one she made of him during spring training in Tampa two years ago. She drew it in charcoal and pastels, rather than watercolors, and took it to Steinbrenner Field, where the Yankees play. Her husband, a lifelong Yankees fan, had a security guard deliver it to the manager before a game.
“Five minutes later he came out of the dugout,” she said, and signaled her with his thumbs up. “Then the security guards wanted theirs done, too.”
Steven Girardi is the Tampa Tribune’s St. Petersburg editor.