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Adapting to new forms

By Susan Chaityn Lebovits  |  April 27, 2008

More than 30 years as a college mathematics professor did not prepare Dan Sankowsky for becoming a statistic. Approximately 40,000 Americans develop Parkinson's disease each year; a fraction of those will develop camptocormia, an abnormal bending of the body. Sankowsky has both.

However, Sankowsky said, there are no thoughts of "Why me?"

By foot, it's difficult for him to move around, but sitting at the computer with mouse in hand, Sankowsky has the agility of an athlete and the eye of an artist.

His artwork has been displayed in his hometown of Framingham at the Danforth Museum and the local Capitol One offices; the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission in Roxbury; and the Private World of Robert Edward, a salon in Newton. An exhibition will open at the Nashoba Brook Bakery & Café in West Concord in September.

Sankowsky, 66, has been on staff at MIT, Simmons College, Babson College, and Suffolk University, where he worked for 26 years teaching such subjects as probability and statistics, including a course titled "Decision Making Under Uncertainty." He also acted as chairman of the management department at Suffolk's Sawyer School of Management from 1990 to 2000.

Dan Sankowsky at home

"Three weeks into my college teaching career at MIT, I had an epiphany," he said. "I was very nervous up at the chalkboard, and I saw the fear in the students' faces; I wanted to find out why they were afraid, and I did."

Sankowsky went on to research math anxiety, which he says occurs even in the highest levels of the science, and proceeded to come up with practical solutions to help his students, including a system for solving word problems.

He now uses his avant-garde techniques to enhance his artwork. Sankowsky began drawing with magic markers in the late 1960s, producing more than 283 works. He took a 15-year hiatus from art to raise a family (and now has six grandchildren). When the advance of Parkinson's forced him to retire in 2004, he dove back into his art and added a high-tech twist.

Twenty percent of his current work has been adapted from his original arsenal of drawings; 120 of them have been scanned into his computer and reworked, primarily using Corel Paint Shop Pro X and Microsoft Photo Editor. Sometimes he'll take an index card, color it with marker, then scan it and work on the negative image, which he says produces very vivid and abstract forms.

In Sankowsky's original drawing "Downtown by Petula," five buildingsDowntown by Petula
in mint green, orange, and peach sit below a flesh-colored sky with red clouds that resemble cellular organisms. The reworked computer version has the sky doused in pink, gray, and burgundy, and gives the buildings a rugged, three-dimensional feel, as if made of stone. (Click image to enlarge)

Enclosed"Enclosed" begins as an amoeba form, with finger-like projections in peach and outlined in a darker tone. The computer version replaces the subdued hues with an electric blue, and morphs the peach protrusions into a backdrop of brown and flesh-colored speckles.(Click image to enlarge)

"Encircled" looks as if it might have been influenced by M.C. Escher,Encircled with interlocking, puzzle-like figures that take on different images depending on whether the viewer is looking at the positive or negative images. A sliver of bright yellow separates the shapes on the left from a burnt-orange ellipse that could just as easily be an egg or a demonic eye. The computer remix has changed the interlocking figures into brown and black forms floating in a sea of pea-green liquid. The once burnt-orange eye is now black and yellow, with a hovering purple haze. (Click image to enlarge)

His home studio also has displays of drawings by a cousin and his late father, who taught painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Much like his art, Sankowsky has adapted to his new form.

Throughout his life, Sankowsky had been an athlete. One morning in 1993, he woke up, went for a run, and returned feeling as if something was wrong with his body. "I couldn't pinpoint it, or put it into words," said Sankowsky. "My wife thought that I was going through some sort of depression."

Four years later, when both of their daughters were getting married, Sankowsky's wife noticed that his posture had begun to slump, and she got him to see a neurologist. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1998.

Despite the diagnosis, Sankowsky continued to run, and to work full time, until the next phase of the disease appeared in 2003.

"I was walking to the bus stop to work one morning, I bent over, and couldn't stand up again," said Sankowsky. He taught his classes hunched over that day, then went to see his physician. Sankowsky was told that he had developed camptocormia, which medical journals say is often preceded by Parkinson's disease. It has left his body fixed at a near 90-degree angle.

"I just live with it," said Sankowsky. "When I have my medications, I'm not bad and can move around pretty quickly, but I can't straighten up."

He walks with difficulty, alternating between a walker and numerous wheeled office chairs that are scattered throughout his home.

Sankowsky said he takes one day at a time, and now gets his exercise dancing with his walker.

"I'm a good hoofer," he said. "I used to dance a lot when I was younger."

Wendy Sobel, a Wayland resident with a private psychology practice in Milford, is a longtime friend of Sankowsky's. She said that she admires the way he's coped with his illness, channeling the energy that he once used to teach mathematics into his art. He has been prolific, she said, producing thousands of pieces, and getting them displayed so that people can enjoy them.

Sankowsky has dealt with his health problems by absorbing them into his life, said Sobel, rather than turning his life over to them. "He doesn't complain, but if you ask him how he is, he'll tell you honestly."

Sobel cites Sankowsky's love of snowstorms, and marvels over his technique for shoveling and chipping away at the ice in his driveway while maneuvering his walker.

"He's created an entire method to shovel, despite his body being fixed in a right angle," said Sobel. Nothing has changed their friendship, she said. "He's probably one of the most brilliant people I know."

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