By Danny O’Bryan
If you ask Evan Leibowitz how he does dioramas, he will answer sarcastically, “They do me.” For Leibowitz, who describes himself as a “high functioning Parkinsonian,” this is not hyperbole. Having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 14 years ago, the artist uses the concentration and skill it takes to construct his miniature worlds to control the onset of the disease. It is a technique that he and his partner, painter Carol McLeod – who also has Parkinson’s – share and practice in their Highlands home studio.
“Having Parkinson’s is not a good club to join,” says Leibowitz. “It’s a brain disorder. The gland that makes the chemicals that put the synapses together is dying. You try to keep going with medication. Everybody has their own way of dealing with it.”
Leibowitz grew up in Marble Head, Massachusetts, a town with a rich architectural history. “There was always some form of restoration going on with the old buildings and I got involved early on,” he says. Young Leibowitz moved to San Francisco where he painted historic houses before landing a job as a painter for the Hyatt Regency Hotel chain. He held the job for 26 years until he developed Parkinson’s.
“I couldn’t go up ladders and my straight lines weren’t straight anymore. I did a lot of intricate work before the disease hit me,” Leibowitz says.
After meeting and falling in love with McLeod at a workshop for Parkinson patients, Leibowitz moved to Louisville. Earlier this year they opened “Synchronicity Studio,” but closed early in July.
“It was a noble experiment, but the rent was too high. The last day we were open, we had a day-long celebration that featured a large cast of local musicians and poets. We are looking for a new location,” says Leibowitz.
Leibowitz has been making dioramas for ten years. “My slogan is, ‘If you don’t like this world, make one of your own,’” he says.
One his favorite dioramas is an intricate reproduction of the Swiss Alps as they appear looking out a train window. It’s a scene Leibowitz actually experienced years ago while vacationing in Europe. “I don’t have any photo of this,” he says. “But I remember what it looked like. I used my imagination. It’s still in my mind.”
Another diorama features World War I fighter planes in battle, soaring through a giant cloud inside a plastic case.
One of his more, as he describes, “cerebral” pieces is called “Oil.” It has a skeleton holding a ball bearing on top of an oil drum – which represents the oil industry – with another skeleton on the other side, chained to a motor with a steering wheel in its hand.
On a lighter note, Leibowitz has constructed two early western wagons, one filled with Indian arrows and the other virtually unscathed but holding a formidable looking Gatling gun. It’s titled “Custer’s Last Stand.”
“The story goes that Custer was told before his last battle to take along a Gatling gun, but refused because he said it would hold him back. We all know what happened then,” Leibowitz laughs.
The artist would like to introduce other Parkinson patients to his brand of art therapy.
“As our population ages, more and more people are going to be diagnosed with the disease,” says Leibowitz. “I would like to work with other patients and teach them how to use art to illustrate the emotions they experience dealing with Parkinson’s.”