How we created “Pearson’s Disease”

This is a poem I was really keen to publish on Coloring The Wind.

PEARSON’S DISEASE

It’s just not right.
It must be a stupid typo,
Or else someone is going deaf.
It’s Parkinson’s disease,
and – believe me – he is welcome to it.
My name is Pearson.
P – E – A – R – S – O – N,
and this has gone on too long.
So Parkinson, take back
your wobbles and your twitches.
Reclaim your hesitations
and your tremors.
They’re all yours.
Don’t worry about me,
I’ll get by without them;
I’ve got my own affliction –
Pearson’s disease.
It’s not as bad as yours.
The main symptom is a compulsion
to scribble silly verses
and make people read them.
Sadly it’s terminal.
But at least it’s mine.
Pearson’s Disease had so many of the elements that are exactly what I’m looking for. First, it had a unique, intensely personal message – but with universal appeal. We try not to think about it, but we all wonder sometimes what would happen if we were struck down by a physical or mental illness – how would we cope? I found bravery in Chris’s words, anger, a determination to fight … and a gentle humour. The first time I read the poem, it connected immediately. Perhaps you found that too.

From the publishing standpoint, it checked several other boxes. I want the work we publish to be beautiful, inspiring, but more than that, I want it to be art with a purpose. W.H. Auden once wrote ‘Poetry makes nothing happen.’ I disagree. Poetry can create awareness, shape opinions, be a force for good in the world. As this poem did. It made me want to find out more, and when I did, I knew what I wanted to do: to use the work we would finally publish to fund-raise for Parkinson’s research.

I also liked the way the poem was written. It has been carefully crafted, and progresses beautifully towards its understated last-line climax. But at no point did it strike me as ‘poetic’ – in other words, poetry for poetry’s sake. Not a word is wasted. Chris will confirm that we’ve really struggled together to work several of his other poems into shape for wall-art. Sometimes they were just too long for visual display; sometimes we’ve rearranged words or lines, hacked away at verses till we both felt we’d got it right. Not so with Pearson’s Disease. I didn’t want to change a word. As a publisher/editor there was nowhere I felt I could make it better.

Except in one respect. If we were going to present it as wall-art or as a card, we needed to add visual impact. That’s Coloring the Wind‘s trademark style. But here, for a while, I was stumped. How could we present the meaning of the poem, or Chris’s sentiments – visually? And not in a sentimental, self-pitying,cloying way, because Chris’s poem is anything but that.

My starting-point was research. If I read what people were saying about Parkinson’s on the web, perhaps that would inspire an idea … particularly if I read what other sufferers were saying – how they described the physical feelings and their emotions.

I found Marian’s inspiring blog, Walking My Path With Parkinson’s. She uses a striking image when she describes the fatigue that comes with PD. Could I use it?

Then there is that feeling of “heaviness” in my arms and legs. Sometimes it feels like gravity has suddenly been turned up, and that when I walk, I’m walking in sand.

Then there was this brilliant image from Saatchi and Saatchi Denmark.

Mountains in the stairs

As commuters in a Copenhagen subway station climb the stairs, they’re confronted by mountains. At the base of the stairs a message: “The world looks different when you suffer from Parkinson’s.” Inspirational … but I couldn’t use it. It’s been done before.

As I read about the various PD support and research groups I found that a red tulip is the symbol adopted in the USA, while in the UK the color for T-Shirts, badges and other promotional products is cyan. Perhaps I could work those into the design.

But still I was stuck. Until I looked back at the poem Chris had given me originally. Printed on blue card, there was water in the foreground, and an island in the distance, with trees reflected in the water. It wasn’t brilliantly captured, and it couldn’t have been used for a poster … but didn’t I know a place that looked just like this, a lake a couple of miles away from home?

How did the image fit with the words? That’s when my imagination began to take over. The island in the distance across water – hard to get to. Once diagnosed with PD, I supposed, everything was going to be harder to get to. Aims and ambitions would suddenly seem far away, because the body was no longer completely under your control. Suppose I could photograph my island at sunrise, trees glowing in the sunlight, dark deep water immediately in front of you. Even better if I could get a low layer of fog across the surface of the water. If I couldn’t photograph that, I could probably edit the photo using the wonderful GIMP photo editor. (GIMP’s like Photoshop, but free.)

The weather forecast for Thursday morning this week was exactly what I wanted. Coldish but cloud-free. I set out just before sunrise heading for the lake, armed with a Samsung Galaxy II mobile phone. I’d used the phone’s 8 megapixel camera before – for the photograph I used in Gatekeepers. 8 megapixels doesn’t give quite good enough resolution for large posters – that’s one of the reasons the photo in Gatekeepers occupies only half the poster, but it does the job for smaller posters – up to around 16″x12″. As a long-time SLR camera enthusiast, I’m also reasonably impressed with the flexibility offered by the Galaxy: it’s a bit fiddly and imprecise compared with a dedicated camera, but you can custom-set film-speed and exposure levels, and there’s a decent zoom. The other huge advantage of digital cameras of course is that there’s instant feedback: you can check the picture you’ve just taken to see if you’ve got the levels right.

As I reached the lake, the early morning light was perfect. No fog unfortunately, but the water, almost tranquil, reflected the deep blue of the sky, and the sun’s rays slanted across to the island, a few hundred yards away, highlighting greens and golds, making it a treasure you wanted to collect. I tried the ‘Landscape’ setting on the camera, but it didn’t really work: it normalized the colors, masking the rich contrasts. But by gradually reducing the exposure value, I managed to get the kind of effect I wanted:

Normal exposure
Reduced exposure

I knew it had been a good session, but it wasn’t till I got back home and started scanning through the 50+ shots I’d taken, that I realized how good. There was one photograph in particular that excited me:

Selected photo

It was all about the imagery. The fence – a barrier to make it hard to get to the magical island. The duck, that had managed to break through. To my mind, the symbolism captured – and perhaps added another layer to – the implicit meaning of the poem. Parkinson’s is a barrier that makes it harder to reach your treasured goals … but there can still be escape.

Coral Tree Signature
Pearson's Disease Signature

I thought of a way to enhance the message. I have a digitized copy of Chris’s signature, which I’d used in The Coral Tree. There, I used a GIMP effect to turn it into twigs on a path – you can see it easily in the poster version. What if this time I chained the signature to the fence, to emphasize how hard escape would be? It seemed to work.

The next decision was how to crop the picture, to get the right dimensions for a Zazzle poster, and then different dimensions (annoyingly) for a card or a postcard. To get the poem to fit, I knew I needed portrait, not landscape orientation – and I didn’t want the text to hide the duck. I was aiming for a 12″x16″ poster size – I knew the photo resolution wouldn’t really allow me to go large – but to get it to work, it soon became obvious that I’d need to add a border. So why not use one of the blues in the photo? – Ah, I could approximate to the cyan used by the UK’s PD Society. I used GIMP to ‘feather’ the photo into the border and create a smooth transition.

And then finally, the words of the poem itself. I’ve come to realize, working with Coloring The Wind, how important fonts can be to reinforce meaning. They need to be used carefully: sometimes a font will look great in isolation, but will lack sufficient clarity and definition when integrated with artwork, or used in a poster. But for Pearson’s Disease, the free Red Lightning font seemed to work perfectly. I needed to play with font-colors a little. White worked well against the background of trees or the lake, but not against the sky.

After a full day’s work, all the elements came together: I’d produced a poster, a card and a postcard – here’s the final result:

Final Version

Accidentally, something else had worked rather well. Just at the point where the poem talks about ‘wobbles, twitches, hesitations, tremors’, the surface of the water is disturbed, the solid reflection of the trees is broken,fragmented. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself.

So I sent it to Chris. It needed to work for him too – because there’s a Coloring The Wind principle. We agree to work together – artist and publisher – sharing our creativity to create a new kind of art. But nothing gets published unless we’re both 100% happy with the final result.

Disconcertingly, he didn’t get it.

I like your photo. Can’t say I really associate it with the poem. But then I don’t know what kind of visual I associate with Pearson’s Disease anyway. My original attempt was not really designed to reflect the poem – it was just a shot I have always liked which physically framed the poem rather nicely. It has a kind of calm stillness that Parkinson’s sufferers aspire to, I suppose.

That’s not 100% happy! I wrote to Chris, explaining more or less what I have here, and he then told me to go ahead and publish – so I have, and Pearson’s Disease is now in our store. But I still have reservations, even if I really like the finished product personally.

You see, it’s my view that art should connect with its audience immediately. That’s not to say that everything should be obvious at first glance. Great art will always repay more study: as you look again you find new layers of meaning, new understanding, new questions. But in the first few seconds, it needs to grip the imagination. The fact that Chris – who understands what he was trying to convey better than any of us – didn’t see it in the first moments suggests to me that I haven’t got it quite right. There shouldn’t need to be an explanation in order to connect.

Is it good enough to sell? I think so. But does it leave the audience with an unequivocal, memorable impression? Perhaps not. Don’t be surprised if we come up with another visual for the same poem later.

Find out more about Parkinson’s disease and our fund-raising efforts with this product..

Find Pearson’s Disease in our Zazzle store:

As a card: USUKAustralia
As a 12″x16″ poster: USUKAustralia
As a postcard: USUKAustralia

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the explanation of what you were trying to do with this image and poem, Alan. Now I get it :-).
    Nanette Levin recently posted..Do you fly or fall into business success?My Profile

  2. Using it as a fundraiser is a fantastic idea. Maybe you can partner with the Parkinson’s Foundation – get the poster to Michael J. Fox and see if he likes it.

    The photo and words speak to me of a longing for a peaceful life without symptoms. It’s there, but just out of reach because of the barrier.

    I like it a lot.
    Julia Neiman (@parenttrainer) recently posted..Can You Just Jump Into Business?My Profile