Ontario judge turns to expressive art after diagnosis of Lewy body dementia
Other-worldly eyes staring hauntingly from the frame. Kaleidoscopic colours exploding off the canvas. Strange figures that appear more monstrous than human.
When Kevin Whitaker paints, he expresses his emotions. He also gives the world a rare glimpse of what it's like to live with Lewy body dementia, an incurable, brain disease that forced him to retire as an Ontario Superior Court judge at the age of 58.
"It was the most frightening thing I've ever had to go through," Whitaker told CTV News.
Lewy body dementia is a terminal illness that affects an estimated 150,000 adults in Canada. The disease is a combination of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, and it can lead to impaired memory, loss of movement and sudden hallucinations.
Whitaker was diagnosed initially with Parkinson's in 2014. Two years later, doctors found that he had Lewy body dementia, a more aggressive form of the disease.
Unable to continue his work as a judge, Whitaker made the difficult decision to step down from the bench. His partner, Marie Moliner, also retired in order to serve as his primary caregiver.
The decision to use art to document his medical journey was natural. An avid painter, Whitaker turned to the canvas in the early 2000s when his father was experiencing his own difficulties in hospital.
As the disease has progressed, Whitaker's paintings have evolved. Moliner said his paintings have become increasingly "chaotic" and "intense," with a clear emphasis on colour.
"He started to paint with such purpose, and then it gave me purpose. So it's really been a gift in a way that I hadn't expected," Moliner said.
The disease and the medications used to treat it have caused Whitaker to develop dyskinesia, or uncontrollable movements, which means that he often sways as his paints.
The symptom has become evident in his work.
"Sometimes they're wild, and he's going at the canvas as if it was a monster," Moliner said.
Monsters were a theme in his first art show in April.
Appropriately called "Chasing Monsters," which Whitaker said was a manifestation of "hallucinations, erratic memory, and generalized physical discomfort...interspersed with many moments of joy and personal growth in directions I have never before experienced."
His next show, "Bella Ciao: The world is too much with us," slated to open Dec. 1 in Toronto, touches on youth and state violence. The show will be preceded by a documentary on Whitaker by Back Lane Studios.
The artwork isn't simply personal endeavor. Whitaker's pieces have allowed him to raise money for research into Lewy body dementia.
Most importantly, the practice has offered an outlet for expression in a trying time.
"It allows me to not think about the things that can get me down. It makes me think that, yeah, there are some things that I can still do," Whitaker said.
Dr. Mario Masellis agrees that the artwork offers a unique window into the disease.
"It does help me to understand what's going on in their mind and how potentially the disease is affecting their thought processes," said Dr. Masellis, a Lewy body specialist with Sunnybrook Health Services.
An estimated 1.5 million people across North America live with the disease, which affected late actor Robin Williams and CNN founder Ted Turner.
With files from medical affairs specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip