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Trading the pen for the paintbrush

After Parkinson’s disease diagnosis, history professor emeritus finds solace in painting

By
Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2014

Painting took a backseat to history while Abbott Gleason taught at Brown. Since Gleason’s Parkinson’s diagnosis, his works have become more abstract and free-flowing, mirroring the jazz music he loves.

A painting hangs in Abbott Gleason’s living room — a piece his wife calls his best work. A view of Florence from the hills outside the city, the landscape combines Cubist form with the pastoral, earthy colors of Paul Cézanne. There’s something organic about the painting: It straddles the border between representation and abstraction, as though taken directly from the hazy, lush memories of his early childhood.

Gleason, who goes by Tom, painted the landscape when he lived in Europe as a Fulbright scholar, years before completing his doctorate at Harvard and becoming a professor of Russian history at Brown.

Now 10 years into retirement and 76 years old, Gleason held his third art exhibit this year on Thursday.

But for Gleason, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2004, the artistic success he has seen in retirement has come with serious complications.

“I don’t think I was ready to retire,” he said. “I sometimes miss it — the classroom and the students — but I try to keep it out of mind. Painting is all I try to concern myself with now.”

Gleason grew up in an academic household. His father, Everett Gleason, worked as a professor of medieval history at Harvard and Amherst College before becoming the Intelligence Chief for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA, during the World War II. After the war, he worked as a historian for the Council on Foreign Relations and the State Department, as well as the deputy executive secretary for the National Security Council. His mother, Mary Eleanor Abbott, was a painter, whose own father worked as a professor focused on the English Civil War and the Commonwealth.

Both this spirit of education and his mother’s practice as a painter shaped Gleason’s childhood in Washington D.C., engendering a lifelong fascination with history, music, art and literature. But he would truly become devoted to painting while studying at St. Albans, a D.C. area preparatory school.

“He started painting in high school under Dean Stambaugh,” said his wife, Sarah Gleason. Stambaugh “was the one that really inspired him to pursue art.” Gleason “formed a deep connection working in the studio” with his teacher, she added.

But after St. Albans, Gleason’s artistic production slowed as he devoted more time to history  as an undergraduate and doctoral student at Harvard. While he still made one or two paintings a year, his artwork took on a lesser role as he worked on his research.

“He made that decision to get a PhD in history before we met,” Sarah said. “He struggled earlier with the question of what he would do. He said once that he ‘wasn’t brave enough to choose art as a career,’ and it was always between art and history.”

His choice to follow the path of history led Gleason to Brown in 1968, where he taught as a member of both the history department and the Watson Institute for International Studies. “I went to Harvard, but I root for Brown in everything. At every event, I’ll support Brown. This is my school now,” Gleason said.

He also served for two years as the director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C. and published and edited a range of books, including “Young Russia: The Genesis of Russian Radicalism in the 1860s” and “Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War,” which examined the intellectual history of dictatorships.

More recently, Gleason published “A Liberal Education” in 2010, a career-spanning memoir exploring the unique generational challenges of coming of age in the late 1950s, an era defined by both the conformism of the previous decade and the countercultural revolution of the upcoming one — a period to which Gleason very much related, as he was involved with left-wing politics and worked as a civil rights activist in Mississippi.

But his academic career has begun to come to a close due to his condition. Gleason was playing tennis when he first noticed that something might be wrong, according to a reflection he wrote in the Brown Alumni Magazine. He couldn’t throw a ball straight up in the air, rendering him unable to serve.

“We had an annual picnic for the Watson Institute, and I would always play in the yearly soccer game,” Gleason told The Herald. “I had played in college, but that year I kept falling down. It seemed strange at the time.”

But Sarah didn’t recognize the symptoms until a friend suggested that Gleason visit a neurologist.

“We were visiting a friend in August in New York who we hadn’t seen for a year, and after a day she approached me and said that she thought Tom might have Parkinson’s,” Sarah said. “I didn’t have a clue.”

Parkinson’s disease is a degenerative disorder stemming from the loss of dopamine-producing cells in the brain. This leads to restricted movement — including tremors or rigidity — and a decrease in parts of cognition. The cause of Parkinson’s is unknown, although genetics has been cited as a potential factor. Treatment can consist of a mixture of motor-therapy, medication and surgery to manage, but not cure, the disease.

In the ten years since he was first diagnosed, Gleason has felt a tangible decrease in ability.

“I can’t keep up with scholarship anymore. I also used to love to write, but it’s become too much for me now, too complex,” he said.

“Once he had Parkinson’s, he didn’t start picking up on the painting until well after his ability to read and concentrate sort of left him,” Sarah explained. “After rehab in 2011, he went back to drawing. He’ll work in the morning, which gives him some clarity throughout the day. There’s a real satisfaction to make and complete a picture that I can tell is meaningful to him.”

Gleason only paints abstract works now, and according to Sarah, his paintings have become much more vivid and feature brighter colors. Last year the Watson Institute exhibited a career retrospective for Gleason, with paintings spanning from 1963 to 2013.

Art became a way for Gleason to remain connected to both Brown and the community, Sarah said. “His grandchildren, Will and Sam, have also been inspired by his work and have been painting.”

For Gleason, art has acquired a certain ritual. A lifelong lover of jazz and classical music, Gleason will listen to his favorite musicians as he paints. Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk float through his workspace, and a favorite album of African music created by instruments crafted from foraged pieces provides the soundtrack to his brushstrokes. His works, full of flowing vitality and natural forms, hold the free sense of a jazz ethos that remains fundamental to his process.

“Everything else has deteriorated,” said Gleason, albeit with a chuckle. “But my painting is the best it has been.”