Rothesay man with Lyme-related brain impairment discovers hidden talent for painting
A 57-year-old Rothesay man who only started painting about a year ago is thrilled that two of his paintings have made it into an international exhibition sponsored by the Society of Canadian Artists.
Norman Simard’s works entitled Mittens and Winter Stroll are among the 157 works of art selected from 666 entries in the Open International Online Juried Exhibition 2021.
The inexperienced painter has even more reason to celebrate this success because he did so in the face of severe physical and cognitive problems that are believed to be the result of Lyme disease.
Simard started painting on a whim last spring.
He was watching YouTube on his tablet when he came across a 10-minute time-lapse video of a man painting with a spatula.
“I looked at my wife, put the tray down and said, ‘OK, I want to buy some painting supplies. I want to paint.”
Simard’s painting Winter Stroll was one of two pieces selected for the Open International Online Juried Exhibition 2021. (Submitted by Norman Simard)
Simard had not tried anything artistic since the 10th grade when repeated comparisons with the artistic abilities of his twin brother caused him to drop out of art class after only a few weeks.
“Probably the worst thing you can do to a twin,” he said.
“I tried to be my own person.”
(His brother didn’t pursue art either, but he finished class.)
For the next 40 years, Simard didn’t feel like making art until he saw this video two days before a COVID “lockdown” began.
He and his wife Rachel took some canvases, brushes and paints and Norman tried to reproduce a screenshot he had taken from the video.
He had no idea what he was doing.
He didn’t know how to apply the paint or mix the colors.
He used a lot of paint to make the color brown.
He might have saved a little by using his color wheel, but because he has short term memory problems, he kept forgetting that he had one even though it was right in front of him.
“Often I was kind of in my foggy Lyme brain because I was still pretty foggy back then.”
“I would just get caught in this haze of painting.”
Simard said his wife Rachel was so proud of his first painting that she put it on the wall. (Submitted by Norman Simard)
He was surprised at how good his first painting turned out in the end – “so beautiful that my wife has it on the wall.”
Rachel Simard is proud of how far her husband has come.
She retired early from her full-time job in government to be with her husband after he fell ill.
But Norm fought a lot alone, she said, not knowing what happened to him to get where he is today.
First symptoms of Lyme disease
He has had health problems since autumn 2017.
The first thing he noticed was that the soles of his feet were sore when he got up in the morning.
That went away.
Then one day he came home from work and noticed that his arm was going numb. The next morning it was worse and the numbness had spread to his leg and the left side of his face wouldn’t move.
Doctors ruled out a stroke and advised him to go home and “take it easy”.
Simard said he got heart palpitations in January 2018. The doctors told him again that it was like stress. He was starting to feel like they thought he was a hypochondriac.
Simard’s painting entitled Summer Reflections. (Submitted by Norman Simard)
In May 2018, he was out in the yard removing a fence that protected some cedars from snow and deer when he became very dizzy.
“The world just started turning. I couldn’t stand. I just stumbled over to the side of the garage and slumped against the house.”
He lost the ability to speak on the way to the hospital.
“I just felt like I was in a big, gray box.”
He was sent for a CT scan and other tests. Doctors thought it was an atypical migraine.
His condition continued to deteriorate.
“It was like someone put a large metal band around my head and tightened a vise.”
This feeling of intense pressure lasted for months.
Norm had trouble staying awake. The language was slow and difficult.
He saw a number of specialists, but nothing really worked.
Norman Simard’s painting entitled Snowshoe Bliss. (Submitted by Norman Simard)
Eventually he was told to go back to work at Irving Paper even though he was having a hard time getting his job done. He would forget things and could not think ahead.
That was problematic for a technician. Simard worked in the instrumentation and electrical department.
Before joining Irving Paper, he worked at the Lepreau power plant, on frigates and on jets for the Air Force.
But back on the job, Simard eventually connected with someone who had seen symptoms similar to his caused by Lyme disease. One employee had a daughter who Lyme had.
However, she had a tell-tale bullseye rash and was treated within a week or two.
Simard had received an antibody test for Lyme that came back negative.
But he remembered finding a tick while showering in September 2017, two months before he noticed symptoms.
Shortly afterwards he also had a rash on his chest. But it wasn’t a direct hit.
Too late for treatment
He discovered a list of Lyme disease symptoms on the Government of Canada website that he thought matched everything he had experienced.
He looked for another medical report. This time, he said the doctor told him he probably had Lyme disease, but it was probably too late to treat it.
Even so, the two weeks of antibiotics she prescribed took him “from really bad shape to a place where I could partially function.”
Then he saw a Lyme disease specialist in Maine who diagnosed him in the fall of 2018, about a year after he had symptoms.
Various tests and treatments are available in Maine for one price. The test was $ 500, and each time he scheduled an in-person appointment it was about $ 1,500.
Simard thinks it is “money well spent”.
“I’ve turned into a vegetable with a lot of physical conditions,” he said.
When he started treatment, which included more time on antibiotics, there was a “noticeable turnaround”.
Now he can walk almost normally and no longer finds it overwhelming to be in the same room with more than a few other people.
When I think about where I could have been, I’m pretty happy. “– Norman Simard
He has an appointment with his doctor in Maine every three or four months. They were remote appointments during the pandemic.
“He seems to think that I’m as good as I’m about to get now,” Norm said.
Wednesday was the first “really bad day” he’d had in a while. All he could do was sit in a chair with the television on and eyes closed.
Norm said that if he tried in any way he would get extremely tired and then his short-term memory would become bad and he would get confused.
“When I have to remember memories or solve puzzles or life riddles – just everyday things – it can be a bit exhausting.”
At 11:50 he can say that he will make Rachel an omelette for lunch, and by noon he will have forgotten everything.
“A lot of people would probably cry if stuck in the state I am in,” Norm said, “but when I think about where I could have been, I’m pretty happy.”
He tries to paint for a couple of hours every day, about as long as he can.
Then he stops and takes stock of what he’s done and says, “Huh, look at that!”
It’s getting easier and easier to remember which colors mix to make other colors, he said, and he paints faster.
The first painting was small and lasted a few weeks. Its last ones took about three weeks but are bigger and more detailed.
“I spend a lot of time making the sky look what it looks like. There are a lot of back layers that give you these effects.”
Simard’s tidal wonder is an example of a piece he painted despite symptoms of Lyme disease. (Submitted by Norman Simard)
Sometimes he thinks it looks more like chaos than art.
But he paints layer by layer until the colors, shades and details look right.
He has now taken 22 pictures.
Most of them were realistic landscapes, but he did some abstract pieces as well.
He tries to use a spatula for most of his work.
He’s still not sure how to do it.
“I find it hard to believe that this art is something that I have painted.”
Norm sold most of his paintings. Two or three went for $ 1,200 each, he said.
He found out about the art competition from a post on the Saint John Art Club’s Facebook page.
“I just finished a picture and thought I should just do it for exposure,” he said.
“I thought it was good and I was told by a lot of people that my pictures are beautiful. I thought it would be just cool to apply.”
He sent his entry and “kind of forgot” until he received a congratulatory email.
“I thought wow, that’s pretty cool. If you look at this website there are some amazing artists out there.”
“I think making it into this level of art is probably a feather in your hat that you can be quite proud of.”
His favorite picture is always his youngest.
“When I’m done, I’ll be pretty happy.”
He’s just finished one of St. Martins’ which he thinks is “really nice”.
It is based on a photo a friend took from “a unique angle” on the coast.
In the foreground is an eroded pile of soil surrounded by a thick bed of algae. In the background there are pools of water, boats on the quay, a covered bridge and colorful buildings.
Norm said he exaggerated the brightness of the colors to look like something typical of the Newfoundland coastline.
The sun peeks out and the colors are more vivid when the light touches.
“Everyone keeps telling me how nice it is,” he said.
Norm finds such comments very encouraging and plans to continue painting.
“For me, art should somehow make people happy.”
He thinks he has something else to offer.
Another thing he hears a lot is that the colors and depth work a lot better in person.
Therefore he would like to get one of his pictures in an art gallery.
He currently shares his work on Facebook under the name NRSimardsart.