A tree that pays tribute to the resilience of people living with Parkinson's disease, built by two artists and friends here in Missoula, has arrived at a new home.
The sculptured steel trunk, decorated with branches, each leaf with a quote by someone with Parkinson's or whose life has been affected by it, was shipped to New York City, where it's now installed in a new space at the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which funds more Parkinson's research than any other nonprofit.
It's a "breath of humanity" and "represents the voice of the community," said Veronique Enos Kaefer, the foundation's vice president of community engagement.
The tree, titled "Forging Resilience," was made by Hadley Ferguson, a Missoula painter and muralist, and Carolyn Rae Maier, a photographer. Metal artist Jason Perry sculpted it based on their design, and many volunteer helped, too.
While the two are careful to highlight others' contributions and experiences, their stories are a part of it, too. Ferguson was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson's in 2010, and later learned that she has multiple system atrophy, and began working in Parkinson's activism while also making art. In 2016, she completed sprawling murals for the Capitol in Helena that document women's contributions in Montana history. Maier's close family friend, Morris Silver of Missoula, had Parkinson's.
The two combed through thousands of quotes for the project. Maier, who managed the database of submissions, said it was a window into their lives. Years later, they get updates from people — about their lives, or checking in on the progress of the art project.
The quotes were printed, cut into a leaf shape and mounted on a wire-mesh structure. Ferguson would read them as they went on the branch, as a way of paying respect.
As an example, Timo Montonen, a 58-year-old resident of Finland who has Parkinson's, wrote, "Before diagnosis, I published two books in 20 years. After diagnosis, I have published 15 books in 10 years."
Ferguson and Maier went to New York for the installation, and it had its debut during a meeting on Thursday morning.
"It was a very personal project," Ferguson said, "and that's why having it go to the Michael J. Fox Foundation feels so right" because of their respect and dedication for the Parkinson's community.
Fox, the "Back to the Future" and "Spin City" actor, was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson's disease in 1991, according to the website for the foundation, which has become "the largest nonprofit funder of Parkinson's drug development in the world."
The foundation's mission is to fund research for better treatments and ultimately a cure for Parkinson's disease, Kaefer said. It collaborates with scientists actively working on Parkinson's and related fields, and has funded $850 million in research programs to date.
For almost three years, Ferguson has served as a member of its patient council, which "represents the voice of the entire patient council," Kaefer said. People are selected because of their skill set, point of view, and experience, and help inform the foundation of what it's "really like to live with Parkinson's," and help them design their priorities around patients.
Donors raised money privately for the tree and donated it to the foundation, which didn't use any of its own money for the purchase. It was installed in a new space "dedicated to community interactions," she said. It's where the patient council, foundation leadership and more, meet.
The tree originally had about 4,000 quotes from people living with Parkinson's or people whose lives have been affected by it. They came from 17 countries, including attendees at the World Parkinson Congress and online submissions. Those kept coming in after they displayed the tree at the Montana Museum of Art & Culture, accompanied by portraits and interviews by Maier. Her subjects ranged from retired NBA player Brian Grant to Hilaire Roger, a resident of the Congo, where Parkinson's is stigmatized.
They've since added hundreds more quotes, including ones from the foundation's patient council, staff and more.
While both Ferguson and Maier work with nonprofits, the personal interaction on the project was very different.
"When you are working behind the scenes and you're not hands on with the people you're serving, you kind of lose touch of the passion piece, and this has been transformational for me personally and very deep and meaningful," Maier said.
After the two started their "Forging Resilience" project, they had a home base at the former World Theater on South Higgins Avenue. Maier is the executive director of the philanthropic Silver Foundation, which bought the theater to host community and art events and have a space for the Resilience work.
In February 2017, they were preparing to host screenings for the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. Large amounts of snow had accumulated on top of the building over the winter, and about a week before the movies were set to roll, the roof collapsed. No one was injured.
They already had removed the tree's leaves and branches and stored them elsewhere, and had situated the trunk in a corner where it didn't sustain structural damage — it was covered in debris and water that turned the steel black, and they had to clean it extensively.
In the interim, they'd had at least one offer from someone who was interested in the trunk sculpture, but not the leaves and the meaning behind the whole offer. They declined.
After the unveiling in New York, Ferguson said it looked as beautiful ever, and felt like it was "home."