Turning Pain into Paintings

Timothy G. Welch transformed his struggle with chronic illness into art and inspiration when he founded Pictures from Parkinson’s.

Story and photos by Sue Smith Romero.

Tim Welch holds one of the first pieces he created.

Bright natural light flows through the sliding glass doors and floods the comfortable living room where Timothy G. Welch has set up his easel. Well, actually it’s a folding chair, but it does the job of holding his canvas at the right angle against its backrest. The seat serves as a perfect shelf for his pallet and brushes. Once solid black, the easel/chair is streaked with stray brushstrokes in many colors now.

Wearing a blue cable-knit pullover smudged at the elbow with red paint, he settles into his well-worn recliner in front of the painting he started to work on the day before. The colors on the canvas are a warm reminder of summer on this Saturday after a February snowstorm. With acrylic paint, Welch has created a vibrant rosy sky that could depict a sunrise or a sunset or the radiant light of an imagined world glowing over fuchsia fields. A shimmering golden river pours in from the right and down through the center of the foreground.

This is the 392nd picture Welch has created in the past four years since he discovered the power of art to soothe the symptoms of his Parkinson’s Disease (PD). Diagnosed in 2009 at the unusually young age of 43, he was forced to leave his 22-year career as a chef at the Horned Dorset Inn in Leonardsville, NY. PD causes hand and limb tremors, slows movement, and impairs balance, all things he says weren’t ideal for a job that required working under intense stress with sharp knives and machinery at a high-end restaurant.

On top of the physical symptoms, Welch says he had to go through a series of psychological steps after his diagnosis. “You’ve got to accept it. Not resign, but accept. Then you’ve got to decide what you’re going to do. I had to reinvent myself to a certain extent.”

After he left the restaurant, he spent some time helping his wife Kathy Welch in her second-grade classroom at Mount Markham Elementary School in West Winfield. He discovered that he really enjoyed working with the kids, so he decided to build on his Syracuse University bachelor’s degree and apply to Utica College for a master’s in education which he completed in 2012.

His certification in special education for grades 1-6 was a natural fit. “I could say to the kids, ‘You can get past your problems like I’m trying to do. It doesn’t have to define you.’ I can empathize with them.”

Like many recently certified teachers, Welch started substitute teaching. Though his illness has prevented him from securing a permanent teaching post, he’s been hired for several long-term assignments at Mount Markham that offered him a chance to share his skills, including a food and nutrition class at the high school and a studio art class at the middle school.

He’s also known at school for another special skill - telling “dad jokes.” He shares an example, “My doctor told me to walk two miles a day. So the other day I called him from Boston and said, now what?”

He says his work at school has been fulfilling in many ways. “As much as I give to the students, I get more back from them. You get your stinkers here and there, your characters. But it gives me a sense of purpose, affection, admiration, camaraderie. It makes you feel good doing something positive.”

Sometimes he hears stories of how his students have carried his lessons beyond the school grounds. An elementary school child was inspired by one of Welch’s lessons on how to show the horizon and vanishing point in a painting. His mom told Welch how her child wanted to continue creating at home and said, “Look! I’m painting just like Mr. Welch.”

As a sub, he’s also been assigned to tutor students who can’t attend school because they were suspended or had medical problems. He says some have been tough cases, but he does his best to reach them. One student was out of school for a year-and-a-half, but with the help of Welch’s tutoring, he passed all his classes and graduated. Under the boy’s picture in the yearbook, he thanked his parents and “Mr. Welch.”

“It’s my legacy in a way,” he says. “Some good will come of it.”

And something good has come of it. It was during a sub assignment one day in a sixth-grade art class that Welch first discovered his creative side. The project of the day was a colored pencil drawing of trees and mountains. Instead of just watching the students, he decided to give it a try himself.

“It came out fairly decent,” he says. “I thought, wow! I never could draw stick figures!” After that, he drew about 100 colored pencil pictures. “I thought, wow this is kind of neat. I can actually draw something and it actually looks like something real, half-way decent.”

He moved on to chalk and oil pastels and eventually to painting with acrylics. For a while, he was creating a new painting every four days, taking his leftover paint on the pallet into the next picture. But now he’s producing one or two a week on canvases between 12”x16” and 16”x 20” in size. Some pieces go more quickly than others. He says he recalls one he dubbed the “Jeopardy painting” because he took it from start to finish during the TV show. He completes others in four or five days.

He opens a closet and pulls out a portfolio case with pages and pages of drawings, each one numbered on the back. Another cupboard is stacked full of canvases. “I felt like the well was going to run dry,” he says. “Some of them aren’t as good as the others. Not every one’s a gem. But every so often, I get one and say, ‘Wow that’s really pretty good.’”

Welch says he likes painting landscapes and all but two of his pictures have come from his imagination rather than looking at a photo. The views he’s seen in his life-long hometown of West Winfield and at the New Jersey seashore where he has often visited relatives serve as his inspiration.

“The neat thing is you never know what you’re going to get,” he says. “They’re all very similar but they’re all different. Sometimes I’ll look at it and I’ll say, ‘How did I do that? Where did that come from? How did that find its way onto the canvas because I never thought of something like that before.’ It’s something that’s almost foreign and alien to you except it’s part of you.”

At times he becomes so immersed in the flow of painting his hand tremors stop. “If I don’t try too hard...if I just do it...” he says. “If I force it, they don’t come out as well. The great thing is I never get frustrated by it.”

Welch picks up a brush and turns back to the painting on the chair/easel and explains how he starts with a basic backdrop. “Then I see light and dark areas. Then I add more colors and contrast. I don’t really want to do traditional stuff. Sometimes if I’m still shaky, I let it be part of the painting.”

He holds the brush over the tangerine horizon and lets his trembling hand guide it to tap the canvas with magenta paint. “I couldn’t be that random if I wanted to,” he says. “I just get the shape of it there and then I put some detail into it.” He picks up a touch of white and dabs it on the magenta. “Even that doesn’t look half bad. Now you see some depth there. You keep going like that until you feel like it looks right.” He says his wife Kathy, his avid supporter, will sometimes tell him his painting is finished, and at other times he just knows when it’s done.

The finished painting. Welch uses his medication bottles, cut in half, to trace the circles he needs to paint suns and moons.

The summer after he started creating pictures, Welch established Pictures from Parkinson’s, setting up a website and a booth at the Clinton Farmers’ Market. He says he’s sold several original paintings there and in New Jersey. He also makes prints and cards from his paintings to sell. Some of his best customers have been Hamilton College students, but a few of his paintings have traveled far beyond the local area. One woman who bought a painting said she was going to Dubai the next day and taking it with her. Another hangs in a lawyer’s apartment on Central Park West in New York City.

Though one of the hardest symptoms of PD for Welch is his difficulty in walking, he has been able to set up his booth each week on his own, though he appreciates when a fellow vendor packs up her own booth slowly so she can offer to help him carry his items to the car at the end of the day. He says he has enjoyed the camaraderie of the other vendors and hopes to return to the farmers’ market next summer.

Welch's best-selling prints and cards came from this original colored pencil drawing.

Brimming with creative ideas, Welch has recently explored wood burning. He made these pictures on pieces of wood the school custodian gave him.

Another project conceived soon after he started drawing was a series of books about his journey through PD with art. Recently he self-published the first, entitled Pictures from Parkinson’s Discovery. It took four years and a hard struggle to accomplish.

“One thing about the disease is that it’s hard to get some things done,” he says. “There’s like a force field that holds you down. You’ve got to fight this apathy. They call it Parkinson’s Apathy. It’s something you really have to consciously fight. If you don’t, you find yourself not engaging. Not really wanting to do things. I’m fighting that, but the art helps there.”

Proceeds from his art sales go toward his art supplies and to PD research. He says he likes to help Hope Soars, an organization based at Albany Medical Center. “You never know. That last dollar I send may be the one that makes all the difference.”

In his book, Welch writes, “As much as Parkinson’s has taken away from me, in turn, it has given me the gift of painting.” Instead of dwelling on the obstacles of PD, he chooses to see the benefits. “It teaches you to be patient. It teaches you not to worry about the small things. In the end, everything is a small thing in a way. It gives you perspective. It gives you the ability to step back and take a look at life and not necessarily be so serious about everything.”

Though he has brightened the walls of homes, inspired students, and even won an award at the Central Adirondack Art Show, Welch still doesn’t like to call himself an artist. “If somebody else wants to call me an artist, that’s OK. But it’s almost too much of a leap for me...I’m a guy who likes to paint pictures.”

To see many more photos of Welch's work, visit Pictures from Parkinson's. And you can meet him in person at his book signing at the Richfield Springs Public Library on Saturday, February 29 from noon to 2:00 pm.


Join other curious Central New Yorkers

You'll get 1 email a month about our new stories.

© 2020 by Green Pencil Magazine.