Printed on: December 24, 2012

Behind the Wheel

Grant provides classes, wheelchair-accessible pottery wheel

By Christina Lords

ST. ANTHONY -- Daniel Hidalgo and Gordon Clark made an unlikely duo.

As the gentle whirr of pottery wheels hummed between them, Daniel's shaggy dark mane snuck its way into view as he huddled over his latest project.

Gordon's trimmed white hair was a stark contrast mostly hidden beneath his white cap. It cast a shadow over the light-brown age spots on his face.

"You're ready to drive your thumbs in, Gordon," Daniel said, leaning over to get a closer look. "That's a very good speed."

Outfitted in equally stained aprons, the pair worked side by side at the Idaho Art Lab in St. Anthony in a comfortable silence.

Daniel leaned forward on a simple stool; Gordon, a wheelchair.

Gordon, who farmed and taught fifth and sixth grade for 28 years in Sugar City, was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy more than 19 years ago. The disorder garbles his speech, impedes his cognitive problem-solving skills and inhibits his sense of balance.

All of that is forgotten when he's throwing clay. All of that falls away when he comes to the lab.

"I like throwing on the wheel," he said. "I don't have one at home. I come here."

In October, the lab was awarded a $1,400 grant to purchase a new pottery wheel that was retrofitted to allow Gordon to work from a wheelchair, lab co-founder Kara Hidalgo said. The grant also paid for 40 hours of pottery lessons for Gordon.

"This is not just me helping Gordon," Daniel said. "Gordon has inspired me, too. I've seen how hard he works at this, how dedicated he is, and he pushes me to try to be more like him."

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, progressive supranuclear palsy is a rare brain disorder that causes serious problems with the control of a person's gait and balance.

It causes complex eye movement and cognitive complications for those diagnosed with the condition.

There is no treatment. There is no cure.

Approximately 20,000 Americans -- or 1 in every 100,000 people older than 60 -- have the disorder. Affected individuals are usually middle-aged or elderly, and men are affected more often than women.

Although the disorder gets progressively worse, it is not life-threatening itself. It does, however, predispose those diagnosed with other problems, such as pneumonia and difficulty swallowing.

Many people living with the condition eventually die from choking or injuries related to falling.

Gordon no longer can write. Basic problem solving, such as figuring out how to turn a screw, has become a challenge, according to his wife, Shirley.

"There's a problem with (his) brain and (his) hands getting messages to each other," she said. "He can't make his hands do what he thinks he would like to do."

After years of physically doing less and less, Shirley said the pottery lessons gave her husband an opportunity to do more.

"This Idaho Art Lab giving us the chance to help him learn how to do something has changed his life," she said. "He is not even the same person that he was several months ago ... the art that he has learned here at the art lab has made his life worth living again."

The program is a part of the Idaho State Independent Living Council's Medicaid Infrastructure grant. The council promotes an independent living philosophy for all Idahoans with disabilities, encouraging choice, self-determination and access for all.

The program gave Gordon an opportunity to create and sell his artwork as a means of providing supplemental income for his family. His sculpture was included in an art exhibition at the Creative Access Art Center in Boise this month.

But the lessons also have given him a sense of purpose.

Often a detriment to the person affected, progressive supranuclear palsy can pitch the balance of a person forward. But behind the wheel, leaning forward is a perfect fit for pottery work, Kara said.

"After 19 years of dealing with this, Gordon's kids can say Dad was able to create works of art," Kara said. "This is proof that he's really still in there, that he's able to problem solve and still think through things."

Gordon's demeanor has changed since taking on the project, she said.

Before, he rarely would talk or laugh.

"He laughs all the time now," Kara said. "He wants to engage. He used to use one- or two-word answers when we'd ask him a question. Now he's asking the questions."

Aside from maintaining a small garden and mowing the lawn at home, Shirley said Gordon had little to occupy his time before he started the pottery lessons.

"I have actually found him in the living room at 7 o'clock in the morning dressed and ready to come over (to the lab) with his apron on ... and we don't leave until 10 (a.m.)" Shirley said.

None of the changes would have been possible without Daniel's guidance and compassion, she said.

"This has evolved into a friendship," Shirley said. "Daniel is so easy with Gordon. He doesn't expect Gordon to learn things fast. He knows his capabilities and he works with that.

"Daniel helps Gordon through the process, but he's never critical of him. That, I can tell you, means something to someone like him. It means everything."

Features writer Christina Lords can be reached at 542-6762.

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