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Equine art serves as human therapy

Horse paintings offer therapy, research donations


by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTOS: MICHELLE THOMAS - Debbie Stanek shows off one of the artworks created by Levi. The horses paintings help to pay his expenses -- including hay, vet and farrier bills and board at Forest Groves Still Waters Stables -- which are also partly offset by a lease agreement to 4-H rider Kayla Raichart.Over the past several years, Ted Stanek’s wheelchair and dementia have stopped him and his wife Debbie from doing all the things they used to do together: hikes, gardening, clambering around the beach.

Ted has stage-five Parkinson’s Disease.

“It’s difficult watching your loved one and best friend of 27 years slowly decline. You know you’re losing that person,” Debbie said. “You have to be careful about what you say and about your outlook on life because you’re going to affect his outlook on life. You have to find something good to talk about and laugh about.”

That’s where Levi, the painting horse, comes in.

Teaching their 12-year-old quarter horse to paint has been a creative and comedic reprieve for the Staneks, bringing back a joy that at one time came with health, the thought of growing old together and the feeling of having the best years ahead.

Levi was their daughter, Janel’s, horse before she went to college.

Neither Debbie nor Ted ride, but they didn’t want to ignore the left-behind horse. “I thought, ‘what can we do together that’s fun?’” Debbie said.

The answer came when Debbie saw an online video of a horse, with a paintbrush in its mouth, painting.

Debbie, who came from an artistic family, decided to give it a try about a year ago. Using treats and a clicker, she started training Levi to paint. She enticed him to hold the brush in his teeth by rubbing it in grain and across his chestnut coat so it smelled inviting.

“This is his process,” Debbie said as Levi picked up the brush and dropped it a few times to sniff the colors. Sometimes he makes smooth, sweeping strokes; sometimes he just dabs.

“He’s always been very inquisitive; this helps him express himself,” Debbie said of Levi, who at first stepped all over his canvases and even punctured a few with the brush. “Even if he’s just blobbing, something good can come of it.”by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: MICHELLE THOMAS - Levi, shown here working on one of his paintings, shows affection for his human owners and has earned the nickname Uncle Levi for the care and patience he shows to foals.

Debbie didn’t teach Levi any special strokes or brush movements — that’s all up to him.

Painting with Levi gives Debbie a much needed break and makes Ted smile and laugh. It also helps Levi, a naturally busy and curious equine who nibbles lead ropes and handlers’ coats, channel his energy into creating abstracts.

“A lot of people were kind of skeptical and thought it was kind of dumb,” Debbie said.

At first, people said, “that’s weird.” Some said “I have never heard of that and how will anyone believe Levi painted it? How will you prove it?” Others said, “You could just be doing that yourself.”

Most people ignored Debbie and Ted’s new diversion, except for one person at her Hillsboro stable. Melissa Abbott encouraged Debbie and helped her, setting things up and taking pictures for her.

“I really needed Melissa’s energy and to have somebody not look at me like, ‘What are you doing?’” with raised eyebrows, Debbie said.

A few times a week, Debbie pushes Ted in his wheelchair into Levi’s stall. She rakes aside hay and lays down a tarp. “Do you want to paint?” Debbie will ask Levi, and he’ll bob his head up and down. Sometimes Debbie will even place a red, knitted beret onto his ears.

When the brushes come out, Levi nickers, his eyes get wide and his ears perk up, and Ted chuckles softly while the tray of paints sit on his lap.

“I like his spirit,” said Ted through a small grin.

“Ted loves Levi. He loves to watch him paint; he loves to pet him,” Debbie said. “This is something we can do together and it brings joy to Ted.”

The life they live today scarcely resembles the one they lived in 2011, when both Staneks were working — Ted as an accountant and Debbie at Home Depot — they walked around Hillsboro and hiked around Oregon and went camping. They once ferried their son to band and rugby practice, and their daughter to horseback riding lessons.

The Parkinson’s symptoms started in Ted’s legs. Since then, his health has progressively declined — he wakes up confused, thinking he’s somewhere else and not remembering how to use simple devices such as a can opener, although recently medication has been helping with his dementia.

“Ted never complains,” said Debbie, who’s on unpaid leave from her job to care for her husband. “He’s quite an honorable man. He’s a better man than I deserve.”

The Staneks sell Levi’s paintings and donate 10 percent of the proceeds to the Scripps Research Institute, a nonprofit biomedical research organization dedicated to studying Parkinson’s and other diseases.

Usually Debbie brings Ted along to the painting sessions, but sometimes she sneaks a few hours with Levi by herself.

“This is my therapy; Levi is like my caregiver,” Debbie said. “He’s just a fun horse. He’s a giver. He picks up on peoples’ emotions.”

by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: MICHELLE THOMAS - Ted and Debbie Stanek enjoy spending time together at the barn and also chatting with customers about Levis paintings where theyre displayed, including at the Human Bean in Hillsboro. People who look at his art often see more than what’s immediately visible, often picking out scenes or birds or even noticing one that looks like a self-portrait.

“Sometimes you think he’s doing nothing,” Debbie said. “But something really cool and amazing always comes out of it.”

Check out his paintings at abstractsbylevi.com.