​​​​​​​Image of Don Spalding
The Bitove Wellness Academy created an exhibit for Don’s artwork showing the progression of his artwork since he started the program. (Photo: UHN News)

Don Spratling spends most of his days at the Dotsa Bitove Wellness Academy with his sketch book and pencil.

He's already hard at work on several new pieces following an exhibit of his paintings in the music room of the Wellness Academy last month.

"It began as a bit of a joke when I said to Don that soon we would have to create an art exhibit with his work because he was producing such a high volume of pieces," says Maureen Coyle, manager of the Dotsa Bitove Wellness Academy.

"But then I thought, 'Why not have an exhibit?'"

The art show featured 14 of Don's paintings since he began attending the academy in July, which Coyle says is quite remarkable since he had given up painting when he started the program.

Living with dementia

Don was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease five years ago and later he would be told he had mild dementia.

"He painted as a hobby for years and he's a jeweller by trade," says Marion Spratling, Don's wife of 47 years. "He made all the rings I have on my hand."

But when Parkinson's and dementia began to take their toll, Don put aside his paper and paint brush.

"He was angry and he wasn't able to express himself in the same way, but since he's been coming here and started painting again I can see that he's much happier and it calms him," Marion says.

A creative outlet

The Dotsa Bitove Wellness Academy, created jointly by UHN and York University, provides a day program for those living with mild to moderate dementia.  Programs are focused on relationships and self-expression through movement and art.

Rather than a pre-determined schedule of activities, practicing artists in collaboration with the participants, engage in a variety of activities, which includes art, music, and dance. The aim is to create a space that enables participants' individual expressions and interests.

"We use art for our participants as a way of being expressive, improving quality of life and exploring ways to live as full a life as possible given the life-changing challenges that dementia brings," says Coyle.

piece of the collection
Don's favourite piece of the collection appears in the centre. He says it can be turned in any direction and tell a new story. (Photo: UHN News)

The artist's eye

Since reigniting his passion for art, Don is now painting more than he ever has and elements of surrealism have crept into his artwork.

Don says he initially used acrylic paint, but more recently has taken an interest in water colour paints.

"I like seeing how the colours run into each other because it changes my first idea and it becomes something a bit different," he says.

"I never know what I'm doing really until I start. I just let the paintings take charge."

Marion says she has noticed a significant difference in his style of art since he began painting again, moving from mainly landscape paintings to more abstract pieces.

"I sometimes think the dementia was almost a blessing for Don's art because he's imagining and creating things I've never seen him make before," she says. "He doesn't restrict himself in his art, it's very free now."

When asked what his advice to other artists would be, Don answers with a smile.

"If it doesn't look like what you planned, call it something else."


For more information on a consultation, fees and registration, visit the Dotsa Bitove Wellness Academy website. [Editorial note: this link is no longer available.]

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