Artist Perseveres Through ALS
Oct 15, 2021 Cassie Tomlin
What are an artist's most valuable tools? They need pencils or clay, or paints and brushes, and hands to give materials form. But most crucially, artists need ideas sprung from their heart, mind, memories and dreams.
Holding tight to his ideas, Ken Brenner continued to make art despite a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which gradually paralyzed his legs, arms and hands. But he still had his imagination, and through improvised collaborations with other artists, Ken kept producing paintings over the last year.
ALS is a chronic, progressive disease with no cure and minimal treatments to slow the disease, which weakens a person's muscles. At Cedars-Sinai, where Ken, 74, is a patient, care teams help patients stay safe and comfortable while continuing to find fulfillment despite their physical limitations.
"While I was painting, I didn't think about the disease," Ken says. "Doing something beautiful, like making art, really takes you to a different dimension of your own consciousness. It helped me find hope and a way to keep going."
"While I was painting, I didn't think about the disease. Doing something beautiful, like making art, really takes you to a different dimension of your own consciousness."
Determined to paint
Ken grew up in West L.A. and played football at Long Beach State University until a back injury sidelined him from school and sport.
"Then I painted until I needed a job," he jokes.
While Ken recovered, he taught himself to work with acrylics, watercolors and charcoal. Eventually, he resumed his studies so he could teach preschool in Berkeley, California, and he met Melissa, his wife of 44 years, and started a family. Ultimately, he built a career as a bank executive. He simultaneously furthered his art education, learning to use oil paints and honing his style: abstract, with uninhibited and experimental use of color.
About five years ago, Ken developed weakness in his legs, which was initially thought to be from stenosis—a spinal cord condition. Then, in March 2020, he lost mobility in his left arm, and that August, he was diagnosed with ALS. He retired from his job and moved from the Bay Area to Southern California to seek treatment at the ALS Clinic with Dr. Richard Lewis.
At his first visit, he told Dr. Lewis he was determined to continue making art, which had brought him so much comfort through the years.
A collaborative journey
Ken found a way to keep making art, through collaboration with fellow artists—including one introduced to him by his son Jordan. Around the time of his diagnosis, he met Octavio Molina, who would become his chief collaborator for the next year, during which the two made more than 100 pieces together.
The artists began to meet once a week at Ken's home in Woodland Hills. Ken says their joint practice evolved as his disease did. When they met, Ken used a cane and could still hold a brush—then, as he lost movement, he switched to a palette knife. After a while, using limited movement in his fingers, Ken made "dots" of paint on canvas, and Octavio made lines between them and filled in the rest.
This consistent activity, along with his faith, and love and support of his family, helped him through his difficult decline.
"Octavio extended my ability to paint for a whole other year," Ken says. "The process was so enjoyable for me—sometimes we'd paint for five or six straight hours. It's been very rewarding to make some of the best art I've created through this collaboration. I'm so pleased about how much I've been able to accomplish during this year of transition."
For Octavio, the work is a meaningful representation of what he's learned through from Ken: to embrace his family and appreciate each moment in his life.
"While we worked, we captured the moments and emotions of real conversations we had," Octavio says. "I became his channel to listen and get what he wanted to say."
And it's not just the two artists who gained from the partnership—this year, the artists exhibited their work in Woodland Hills, and Jordan arranged for part of the sales to be donated to foundations that support ALS research.
Dr. Lewis says Ken—like most of his patients, who take trips, write blogs or continue their education despite limited mobility—has impressed him with his resilience and grace.
"Even though ALS really limited Mr. Brenner, he found a way to keep doing the things he loved," he says. "He found an adaptative, creative approach and modified his expectations to do something fulfilling."
This September, Ken lost all movement in his arms and can no longer paint. And though Octavio has recently moved to London to continue studying and practicing his art, the collaboration, in a sense, continues. The two speak every week, and Ken is happy to feel he's inspiring the younger artist.
Now that Ken can no longer put paint to canvas, he has new goals: His daughter is getting married in November, and he looks forward to giving a toast at her wedding.
He encourages fellow ALS patients to rely on their loved ones, and to give themselves something to look forward to.
"Try to stay active," he says. "It hits different parts of your body at different times—while you can use your hands or arms, use them. Having something to look forward to, and having people around, really helps. My kids and my wife and my grandkids are giving me a lot of love to get through the situation."