A new way to create
Former Arts in Medicine volunteer paints through ALS diagnosis
By Michelle Koidin Jaffee
Her hands had begun to fail her because of her increasing symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. But artist Sandra Murphy-Pak still felt the drive to create.
Gingerly dipping her toes into pulverized charcoal, she dabbed them on a canvas. What emerged was far different from her fine paintings of figures and the intricate collages she used to make with scissors, but nonetheless brought satisfaction: It was an expression of emotion, and it was authentically hers.
In May and June, Murphy-Pak debuted her new works in a show titled “Footwork: Evolving as an Artist with ALS,” sponsored by the UF Health Shands Arts in Medicine program. On display at the Marshall M. and Paula P. Criser Jr. Cancer Resource Center in the UF Health Shands Cancer Hospital, the exhibit included 16 works that illustrate Murphy-Pak’s progression in learning to use her feet as artistic instruments.
A former visual artist-in-residence on the Arts in Medicine staff as well as a longtime volunteer, Murphy-Pak was diagnosed with ALS two years ago at age 50. Sometimes called Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a progressive neurological disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord.
“To see one of our own choosing to remain an active artist with these new physical limitations is what we would hope for ourselves,” said Tina Mullen, director of Arts in Medicine.
With a bachelor’s degree in painting from the Atlanta College of Art and a master’s in arts education from UF, Murphy-Pak volunteered and worked with Arts in Medicine for more than a decade, guiding patients in therapeutic art projects and leading group projects such as mural painting to spread the word about the importance of health care. She facilitated outreach programs in the small Florida Panhandle city of Apalachicola and across the world in Rwanda.
Her first symptoms appeared in 2013, when she suddenly noticed while swimming laps in a pool that she couldn’t complete a full freestyle stroke with her left arm. Then, doing yoga, she couldn’t hold herself in positions that previously were not a problem for her.
She was able to continue to work and to hold a paintbrush until last August, when her symptoms worsened and she became occupied with preparing for the future, obtaining medical equipment that would be needed for breathing and going to recording sessions for “voice banking,” or creating a synthesized voice based on recordings of speech samples, in case she lost the ability to speak.
But her pull to make artwork, never lost, reappeared strong as ever.
“I knew that I needed and wanted to continue to create,” she said. “It was slightly daunting, just thinking, ‘how am I going to do this?’ But on the other hand, it just felt natural to use my feet. As a dancer, I’ve always used my feet artistically. When I go to the beach, I’d always be drawing in the sand with my feet.”
With the encouragement of her three daughters, ages 13 to 21, Murphy-Pak resumed making art. Her friend Sarah Hines, an art educator, started coming over every Thursday to pulverize charcoal for her, set out paints and tape paper to the floor.
Murphy-Pak’s artistic style changed dramatically. She has transitioned from a classically trained figure painter, the kind for whom a steady hand and tremendous dexterity is required, into a creator of abstracts.
“There may come a time when I want to get more direct with imagery, but for now it’s really about what’s coming from inside creatively,” she said.
While painting, she imagines the circles and energy of life — visualizing her support network of relatives, friends and caregivers, as well as of her own life force.
“She moved from someone who has rendered through realism to someone using color and form in abstract painting,” said Mullen, who prior to knowing Murphy-Pak had bought one of her paintings off a restaurant wall. “It’s almost like a newly emerging artist.”
Mullen said Murphy-Pak’s new works “radiate light.”
When her exhibit opened in May, among those in attendance at the kickoff reception was UF neurologist Jim Wymer, M.D.
“This is a wonderful example of somebody who is not defined by her disease,” Wymer said. “She is defined by who she is. She has some disabilities from the disease, but she is learning how to express herself.”
ALS, he said, “is a disease that can rob somebody’s ability to move, but it does not affect their ability to think.
“Her strength is inspiring, and other people need to know about what she has done.”
This summer, Murphy-Pak plans to host a workshop, to teach others how to paint with their feet.