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Helping MS patients become art students
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Jul 31, 2005
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Jul 31, 2005
Finding refuge in art
Finding refuge in art (Frank Wiese/TMC)
Jul 31, 2005
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Two-handed painting (Frank Wiese/TMC)
Jul 31, 2005


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MS victims (and others!) find refuge in Art
Their intense canvases reveal emotions behind ongoing nerve disease.
Allentown, PA's Broken Art Movement

Of The Morning Call

Ed Thierer could paint something safe, like a pastoral landscape or a quaint farmhouse along a country road in New Tripoli.

Instead, the 37-year-old Northampton man takes on a much more challenging artistic task to depict the often conflicting emotions that stem from his ongoing battle with multiple sclerosis.

Across a dark, swirling background, Thierer emblazons flaming yellow balls with cometlike tails. The painting exudes a sense of journey into the unknown, perhaps indicative of the artist's own encounter with the progressive nerve disease.

''There,'' says Thierer, a tall man with a ponytail dangling from beneath an Indy 500 baseball cap, ''everything in my head is now on canvas.''

Thierer's chance at self-expression comes during an innovative art class at Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital in Allentown.

Brett Weber, an Allentown artist with MS, teaches the class as an antidote to the depression that accompanies the debilitating disease.

MS attacks the myelin sheath, or lining, that covers nerves in the brain. The damage interrupts brain signals to the body parts, causing difficulty in walking, uncontrollable shaking of the hands and diminished eyesight.

The disease is progressive, but its onslaught can be slowed with immune suppressants. There is no cure.

Jerry Werner, who coordinates the art therapy program, says MS often strikes in the prime of life. Most of Weber's students are in their 30s and 40s and were forced to give up professions such as teaching and dentistry.

''MS is very scary when you're young,'' 36-year-old Weber tells the class. ''You go through a period of adjustment; I did.''

Weber begins the course with an hourlong slide show that could be entitled ''Art History 101.'' He shows great art, ranging from primitive paintings on the walls of pyramids to Pablo Picasso's modernism.

Mixed in with images of the Mona Lisa and Georgia O'Keeffe's flowers are the powerful stories of great artists who overcame physical and emotional impediments.

Michelangelo fought depression while painting the Sistine Chapel. Claude Monet's failing eyesight may have contributed to his impressionism. Vincent Van Gogh's long battle with mental illness shaped artistic icons such as ''Starry Night.''

Weber, who uses a wheelchair, expects no Monets or Cezannes from the class. He tells them to just relax and be themselves.

''Whatever you create over the next few weeks is you,'' he tells the dozen people who meet Tuesday and Thursday mornings. ''Don't be concerned about being perfect for someone else; do it for yourself.''

Gary Ofrichter of Easton had been a dentist for 20 years when he was diagnosed about 10 years ago. He last practiced in 1995.

The 53-year-old Ofrichter manages to cover his canvas with a rainbow of colors.

''I was going to paint the Mona Lisa,'' he jokes. ''But why show off?''

Tom Loper's right hand shakes so much he has difficulty putting brush to canvas. Steadying it with his left hand, Loper manages to spread an amalgam of dark colors across a canvas.

''That's the inside of my brain,'' says Loper, 41, a former factory worker from Allentown.


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