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Painting Through the Shakes

Nancy Paschke gave up art, married, and had kids in the 60s. By the time she came back to it, she'd been suffering from Parkinson's for decades.



In the late 50s Nancy Cohn, who'd wanted to be an artist since childhood, did so well in art school in Milwaukee that her teachers suggested she transfer to the School of the Art Institute. There she became friends with fellow student Ed Paschke, now perhaps Chicago's best-known painter. He was attracted to her right away, but he thought she was out of his league--and she already had boyfriends. They lost touch after graduation. She married and had a son; he went into the army.

Back in Chicago in 1967, Ed met a mutual friend in an Old Town bar who thought Nancy would like to hear from him. Her marriage hadn't worked out, and she was living with her parents in Waukegan. She'd stopped making art and was doing layout for a small newspaper. He sent her a card. They married a year later and had a daughter soon after.

Shortly after giving birth, Nancy Paschke started to feel stiff when she walked and would sometimes stumble. As her symptoms gradually got worse, different doctors offered different diagnoses. It took over a year and about a dozen doctors before she got the correct one: Parkinson's. She was only 33.

Ed's career as a painter was starting to take off, and he'd quit teaching in the hope he could make a living from his art alone. But the $15,000 or so they had in savings was soon eaten up by medical bills, and he started teaching again, part-time at four schools, then full-time at Northwestern, where he's still a professor.

There's no cure for Parkinson's, a degenerative neurological ailment that causes gradual loss of motor control. At first Ed tried to care for Nancy on his own, but she often kept him awake much of the night--she needed help changing positions or just wanted to talk. By the late 70s he was hiring health-care aides, by the early 80s live-in helpers. He says some were good, some weren't there when he needed them, some stole from the family. By the mid-80s they had two live-in aides so that one could always be on duty. None of this care was covered by insurance.

Sometimes Nancy would take too much of her medication. That could cause her to start hallucinating, and she would have to be hospitalized. Or it could send her bolting out of the house, and an aide would have to call the police to find her. Once Ed got a panicked call: she'd taken all the candles in the house, placed them on the stove, and lit them, creating a little "installation." "She was in and out of the hospital," Ed says, "and finally her neurologist said, 'This is getting crazy. From a medical point of view, she has to be in a safe environment where the medications are more controlled and if something goes haywire there's a way to stabilize her immediately.'"

In 1992 Nancy became a resident of what's now called Lincoln Park West Care Center. She says she was depressed and cried a lot. She'd lost some of her sight and could read only large type. She took regular walks, but she also watched a lot of TV.

She'd been in the nursing home for six or seven years when the daughter of an Alzheimer's patient in the next room hired art students to put paper and brushes in the hands of her mother, who'd been a painter much of her life. Nancy asked for art supplies of her own, and she too started painting again.

Ed invited some of their friends--including art critic Dennis Adrian, collector Ruth Horwich, and artists Karl Wirsum, Robert Lostutter, and Jim Faulkner--to look at Nancy's work. "It has a kind of fresh ferocity," says Adrian, who's bought a couple of her paintings. "Her ideas pop out with these extraordinary colors and great energy." Wirsum says her portraits have "this strange theatrical quality," as if she were directing her characters' poses and pulling different personalities out of them.

Faulkner was friends with River North dealer Judy Saslow, whom he thought might be interested in Nancy's work. Saslow has given Nancy four shows, and a fifth is opening July 16.

Nancy says her latest portraits were inspired by Cezanne and van Gogh. Their strong colors and striking forms do suggest the subjectivity of Postimpressionism--as well as the wild colors of Fauvism and the eccentricities of some outsider art.

Ed says being able to paint has changed Nancy. "She's much more pleasantly disposed and stabilized emotionally," he says. "The mood swings are not as dramatic, and the crying is 98 percent gone." She says she'd felt useless. Now, "people pay attention to me for what I do."

Nancy's condition varies from day to day, sometimes from hour to hour. Her voice is faint, and she speaks only in short phrases, occasionally relying on Ed to make her words more intelligible. She spends much of her time in a wheelchair, though sometimes her joints are flexible enough to allow her to use a walker. She needs help dressing, and most of her food has to be pureed. Last summer she fell, injuring her elbow, and wound up with a serious case of pneumonia.

Now 65, she says she paints whenever she feels she has sufficient control. She's often stiff and shaky when she begins, but the act of painting relaxes her and can loosen her muscles. She often listens to music--including Metallica and Judas Priest--as she limns her figures in pencil and marker, sometimes working from magazine photos, sometimes from her imagination. She also paints residents. Ed calls them perfect subjects "since they don't move around a lot."

He pays for the cost of her care, but the money from the sale of her paintings is hers to spend as she likes. One of her caregivers, Catherine Oliver, chuckles at Nancy's expensive tastes: $120 slippers and clothes from the nearby boutique Handle With Care. Ed has to parcel out her income gradually or she'd spend it all right away. "She's like Elvis, and I'm the Colonel Parker," he says, grinning.

Nancy often can't remember pieces she's recently finished, but her longer-term memory is good. She acknowledges that she has a tendency to overwork her paintings and says she often relies on Ed to decide when they're done. He says he tries to choose the point of their "highest energy." Sometimes he doesn't catch them soon enough, and she encrusts them with so much paint they become opaque.

Nancy's titles are often associative. Blue Bland refers to blues singer Bobby "Blue" Bland, though he's not the figure depicted; the title seems to have been inspired by the large areas of blue around the face. In Light Headed, a woman's head seems to explode with vertical bands of color. Colored strings, which Nancy says are like puppet strings, rise from the woman's figure in Sandy. She says both depict individuals who aren't in full control of their brains. Painting, she says, "makes me feel like I have control over something."

Nancy Paschke expects to attend the July 16 opening of her exhibit at Judy Saslow, from 5 to 8 PM at 300 W. Superior. The gallery's regular hours are 10 to 6 Tuesday through Saturday, and the show will be up until September 4; 312-943-0530. Her work can also be seen at

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.

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