Over the past several years, Ted Staneks wheelchair and dementia have stopped him and his wife, Debbie, from doing all the things they used to do together. The longtime Hillsboro residents, who now live in Forest Grove, enjoyed hikes, gardening and clambering around on Oregons beaches.
But now Ted has stage-five Parkinsons Disease.
Its difficult watching your loved one and best friend of 27 years slowly decline. You know youre losing that person, Debbie said. You have to be careful about what you say and about your outlook on life because youre going to affect his outlook on life. You have to find something good to talk about and laugh about.
Thats 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 Janels horse before she went to college.
Neither Debbie nor Ted ride, but they didnt want to ignore the left-behind horse.
I thought, What can we do together thats fun? Debbie said.
The answer came when Debbie saw an online video of a horse, with a paintbrush in its mouth, painting on a canvas.
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.
Hes 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 hes just blobbing, something good can come of it.
Debbie didnt teach Levi any special strokes or brush movements thats 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, to 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 having a horse create a painting was weird. Some said they had never heard of such a thing and questioned whether anyone would believe Levi painted it; suggesting that perhaps the Staneks had painted it themselves.
Most people just ignored Debbie and Teds 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 Melissas 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 Levis stall. She rakes aside hay and lays down a tarp.
Do you want to paint? Debbie will ask Levi, and hell 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 the Home Depot on Science Park Drive off Highway 26. They walked around Hillsboro and hiked around Oregon, went camping and ferried their son to band and rugby practice and their daughter to horseback riding lessons.
The Parkinsons symptoms started in Teds legs. Since then, his health has progressively declined he wakes up confused, thinking hes 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, whos on unpaid leave from her job to care for her husband. Hes quite an honorable man. Hes a better man than I deserve.
The Staneks sell Levis paintings and donate 10 percent of the proceeds to the Scripps Research Institute, a nonprofit biomedical research organization dedicated to studying Parkinsons 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. Hes just a fun horse. Hes a giver. He picks up on peoples emotions.
People who look at his art often see more than whats immediately visible, often picking out scenes or birds or even noticing one that looks like a self-portrait.
Sometimes you think hes doing nothing, Debbie said. But something really cool and amazing always comes out of it.
Check out his paintings at abstractsbylevi.com.