For lifelong artist Maré Simonet, "Art is what I am. It's what I do."

For lifelong artist Maré Simonet, "Art is what I am. It's what I do."

Recently moved to Ashland with her psychiatrist husband, John Champlin, Simonet paints, creates pop-ups and other three-dimensional constructions, designs "upcycled" clothing. She also writes and performs poetry and composes and sings original music.

"It is hugely important," says Simonet, who's been drawing since age 2 and earned a degree in art with an emphasis in sculpture at San Diego State University. "I would be like an empty shell without it."

Art also has been a way for Simonet to process life's pain — in particular, two life-threatening diseases.

The first symptom appeared in 2000 at age 48, while she was in a dance class in Berkeley, Calif. "My hand wouldn't work," she says. "It was really strange."

Six months and a string of doctors later, a neurologist finally diagnosed Parkinson's disease.

"To tell you the truth, I wasn't surprised," she says. "It's like I expected it. Somewhere deep within my soul of souls, I somehow knew something was coming."

Parkinson's disease is a disorder of the central nervous system that "results from the loss of cells in various parts of the brain," according to the Michael J. Fox Foundation. This includes cells that produce dopamine, critical for coordinated movement (www.michaeljfox.org).

Without adequate dopamine, the body's natural movement is impaired, and emotional and cognitive functions can also be affected. There is no known cure.

Simonet's initial symptoms of bradykinesia, or slow movement, increased rapidly over two years. She had to quit her beloved but stressful job teaching the blind in public schools. She stumbled. She had broken a finger. At times, she says, "I could barely move. I was almost in a walking coffin."

Finally, a Parkinson's specialist prescribed the drug Levodopa/Carbidopa, which contains chemicals the brain converts to dopamine, and everything changed.

"I started functioning normally, and actually better than normal," says Simonet. "I had been without the right amount of dopamine for a decade.

"I was so happy to be able to dance and be alive again," she says. "I was doing all kinds of art, writing songs and poetry all over the place, you know, making friends wherever I went. It was a really great time."

It was, she says, her "creative renaissance."

In the midst of all this, not long after her marriage to Champlin, Simonet was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She had surgery, which proved successful, and has been cancer-free for more than three years now.

"Once you've faced death, the unknown of possible death, you're never the same," she says. "I've become more obsessed, and more, feeling like everything's urgent."

Now, she may work on art projects at 4 a.m. or in a dental waiting room. "You know, I may not be around, and I have so much I want to share," she says.

She says her art has been a way to "push through it, and keep living, showing (the disease) that you're still alive, and you can still function and it hasn't taken the spark out of you."

During her battle with cancer, she cut small goddess figures out of gold paper. "They were like these goddesses that protected me," she says. "I have to invent some sort of personal mythology, or personal language, to deal with those things. The process helped me."

When the chemically induced dopamine wears off, which happens more quickly and more frequently now, Simonet says her whole body is in pain. It's hard to initiate movement at times. Displaying a humor that has helped her through some scary times — she calls these her "Bride of Frankenstein" moments — and jerkily acts out the inability to get the leg to walk.

Simonet has decided, after much trepidation, to undertake deep brain stimulation, a proven, electrical-stimulation therapy that requires the permanent, surgical implantation of a thin steel rod deep into the brain.

"I've pretty much decided that I have to do it, 'cause I'm just declining at a more rapid rate," she says. "It's the only viable, for-sure remedy available to me at the moment."

Strangely, along with some other events in her life, she says, "The (Parkinson's) diagnosis somehow freed me."

"I feel like I have a lot to share, and I'd like people to get a sense that I'm in my renaissance still, in some way "… ."

"I think that art is sort of the antidote to the mundane, or whatever people are struggling with. And that's my job, to share with them my language," she says, "something that gives back, provides you with a little bit of an elevated experience, something that provokes thought or compassion."

Simonet and her husband hope to open an art gallery and clothing boutique featuring her works in Ashland.

David Chuse is a freelancer living in Ashland. Reach him at dgchuse@gmail.com.