I first met Katie Gerke at “Art Walk”, an annual event in downtown Calgary sponsored by an organization called Canadian Artists for the Poor. The event showcases the talents of many local artists, while raising money to alleviate poverty. I was drawn to Gerke’s stall by her colourful, expressive paintings, but was soon captivated by her engaging personality.
Meeting Gerke is like an encounter with a whirlwind in a bottle. Time spent in her presence is constantly punctuated by laughter, and it’s easy to forget that she has lost all use of her arms and legs due to Multiple Sclerosis (MS). I was so intrigued by her talent, her witty and self-deprecating sense of humour, and her outgoing, friendly disposition that I decided to visit her again at her home in Calgary’s Fanning Centre. I wanted to see more of her art and find out about her personal story – and what a story it is.
Katie Gerke was born in Drayton Valley, Alberta, and moved with her family to Calgary at the age of 15, in 1979.
“It was a difficult transition, filled with sadness and bewilderment because I missed my friends,” says Gerke. “I also lacked a solid familial foundation, because of my mother’s battle with alcoholism. She passed away at the age of 48, in 1983.”
But Gerke had – and continues to have – a thirst for life and new experiences. Though the move from a small town to a big city high school was daunting, she connected with many good friends while working at Zellers and Woodwards.
After high school, Gerke decided to become a Medical Radiographer, and studied at NAIT in Edmonton. Upon graduation, she was awarded the prestigious “Dr. Symington Award for Efficiency and Proficiency” and, happily, was then hired to work at the General Hospital.
The young woman, always on the lookout for new challenges and ways of reaching out and helping others, decided to volunteer with the Calgary Police Service in their Victim Assistance Unit, a brand new program at the time. As was her way, she threw all her energy into doing her duties well, providing comfort to victims of crime and helping them navigate through the judicial system.
“I really enjoyed the intensity of the volunteer work with the Calgary Police Service,” recalls Gerke. “They gave me a lot of responsibility. Meeting with victims of crime helped me become very empathetic, but also to be a tough advocate when I needed to be, and a good problem solver. Looking back now, it was my initiation into advocating on behalf of others to help them regain some normalcy and empowerment in their lives.”
It was also around this time that the first piece in a puzzle was dropped into Gerke’s life. While getting off a stationary bike after a workout, her right leg buckled as she tried to stand. Other incidents of unexplained weakness in her legs appeared periodically, but she mostly ignored or disregarded them.
Gerke soon developed a desire to travel, and heard about a one-year contract for radiographers at the King Fahd National Guard Hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She jumped at the chance, and thus began an exciting period of world travel. While living in Saudi Arabia, then a somewhat developing country that needed foreigners to work within their existing infrastructure, she made new friends and explored the region. She took diving lessons in the Red Sea, and made a trip to the Asir Mountains near the Yemeni border, to take in the area’s Turkish history. There were also expeditions to the desert to see the stunning red sand dunes and ancient ruins, and travels to Dubai, Kenya, Greece and Turkey. Before returning home to Canada, she toured England with friends.
A few years later, having difficulty assimilating back into a quiet and predictable life back home, she reapplied to work in the Middle East. This time she was assigned to a small town in the beautiful Asir Mountains, just two hours from the Red Sea where Gerke and her friends enjoyed hiking, camping and diving. She also took trips to Sri Lanka, Egypt and Portugal.
“I thank God that I had the chance to work and live and travel in these beautiful places when I was young,” says Gerke. “Travelling in Third World countries were the most interesting to me, because of the unique challenges, and the unpretentious, humble people. I saw similarities to the people I had helped in Calgary who were affected by crime. Now, looking back, it was wonderful that I was able to explore and learn so much, and have such great adventures.”
During these years, however, Gerke was experiencing increased “symptoms”, such as limping, tripping and occasionally falling, as well as feeling great fatigue. But it would come and go, and while in Canada between contracts in the Middle East, she had a number of tests done – all inconclusive.
Back working in the Middle East the second time, her debilitating symptoms worsened, and Gerke ended up exhausted, in hospital a number of times. Unable to rejuvenate and find the rest she desperately needed, Gerke ended her contract early and returned to Canada in April 1992. Only a few months later she received a diagnosis of MS.
Despite her health challenges, Gerke’s determination to support herself and not appear as “lazy” was strong. She went back to school and graduated in 1996 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Computer Information Systems, and was hired as a software analyst at a flourishing company in downtown Calgary. She bought a condo, and by this time was using a manual wheelchair most of the time.
Gerke still had a strong desire to help others, and also craved adventure. She was asked to join the Board of Directors of the MS Society of Calgary (and stayed very involved for almost 20 years). She also took sailing lessons at Glenmore Reservoir with the Disabled Sailing Association of Alberta.
“It was so fun – I took sailing lessons every week and then I got into competition,” laughs Gerke. “They were big boats! At first it was scary, but I sailed for ten years, and then got into racing. I was the only female racer. Those were crazy times. I couldn’t run or walk, but I could sail using my arms. It was an excellent physical challenge…just what I needed.”
Gerka raced in two International Regattas for Disabled Sailors, one in Toronto and one in Montreal, and thoroughly enjoyed the company of fellow mariners and this new sport.
But her health continued to decline, and it was getting harder to keep up with her work and other activities. Despite all her efforts to maintain an image of stability and strength, her body was crumbling, and depression set in.
In 2000, she ended up in the Foothills Hospital Rehabilitation Unit, a shell of her former self. One of the hardest things was coming to terms with the fact that she was unable to care for herself and needed to rely on others.
“I cried out to God and demanded that He ‘take me away’ in the middle of the night,” says Gerke. “He didn’t. Finally, after six very lonely weeks of limited rehabilitation, during which Transition Services was frantically seeking adequate Home Care for me, I went home. What followed was three years of dealing with the unpredictability of Home Care.”
The culmination of these dark days led to a desperate and unsuccessful attempt at suicide. But eventually, with the help of a reliable and loving caregiver named Kathy, seeds of hope and faith began to grow. Gerke started attending a church near her condo with Kathy, and also began to read and meditate on the Bible. Life was still incredibly hard, but she felt God’s presence more and more in her life. Gerke was baptized on May 3, 2003.
That same year, her social worker set things in motion to find alternative options to her living situation, which was no longer deemed safe as she needed more care. Moving into a group home also meant the traumatic step of selling her condo – along with packing, moving and organizing a garage sale. In spite of these daunting tasks, Gerke felt that Someone greater than herself was with her, and that all aspects of her life were in His loving hands.
Living in a group home for Gerke brought many ups and downs, and the state of affairs in one of them led to an environment of extreme anxiety and intimidation, with a house in disrepair and inedible meals. When Gerke tried to advocate for changes she was labeled a troublemaker, and was eventually handed an eviction notice. Two months later, the group home was shut down.
Gerke was barely 40 years old when she found herself living in a tiny room in a seniors’ facility with an 86-year-old woman whose bedtime was 4 p.m. By this time, Gerke could no longer use her arms or legs at all. Limited staff and many patients with high needs meant waiting incessantly for help, and only one shower per week. But she hung onto her new faith in God, and tried desperately to make the best of an extremely difficult situation. Spending as much time as she could in the facility’s sunny central courtyard, she made friends with a 92-year-old WW II veteran named Felix who would regale her with stories from his youth.
“We talked for hours while he held my hand,” laughs Gerke. “I asked him to be my Valentine, and we attended a lovely candlelit Valentine’s dinner in the Atrium. If only I had met him fifty years earlier!”
The MS Society of Alberta asked Gerke to give a speech to the Members of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta about her personal experience of living in a seniors’ facility, which was very well received. A DVD was produced called These Four Walls, which the MS Society still uses as a tool to demonstrate how difficult it is for a young, disabled person to live in a facility that doesn’t meet their unique needs.
Gerke now lives in the Dr. Vernon Fanning Centre, the only age appropriate facility in Calgary, with 150 beds for disabled, active adults between the ages of 18 and 64 years. Shortly after moving there, she was asked to represent the Alberta Disabilities Forum to participate in discussions with the Government of Alberta to create Accommodation Standards for supportive living and long-term care facilities. The meetings were held in Edmonton, but Gerke was determined to have her say. She sat on the committee for the entire six months, travelling by bus up to Edmonton for the meetings.
“I was able to relate my experiences of living in group homes, a seniors’ facility and the Fanning Centre, to help others understand the challenges of living in those environments,” says Gerke. “It was a fantastic experience, with so many important players sitting at the table for these discussions. In 2008, the Working Group was awarded the Premier’s Gold Award of Excellence for a job well done!”
Gerke became energized to initiate projects to enhance the quality of life for residents and their families at the Fanning Centre. She formed and facilitated a Residents Council to enable residents to voice their concerns; she created a “Welcoming Binder” with valuable information about programs, therapies and amenities for new residents; and she instituted an “Overnight Stay Suite” to give residents and their significant other privacy in a homelike environment. Her electric wheelchair provided new freedom. Voice-activated software and a headmouse (a wireless motion sensor that communicates with a camera) allowed her to start writing, which she greatly enjoys. Her early journal writing has morphed into delightful, fantastical short stories, parodies and insightful ruminations on the human condition.
One day Gerke discovered an art class being offered by recreation therapy, and a new chapter in her life began. Though Gerke decided that the art class itself was not her “cup of tea”, it led her to research into mouth painting. Completely self-taught, she started experimenting with techniques and paints. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I painted a winter scene with a decorated fir tree that I named “Midnight Clear” and had 25 Christmas cards printed of the scene,” recalls Gerke. “The popularity of the cards prompted me to paint more, and the encouragement I received led to launching my business Oralart.ca into cyberspace. I love painting…it’s almost like meditation, and I’ve learned so much through the process. Plus running my website and art business is like a job, and it’s been really affirming for me as a person.”
Gerke has been involved with Canadian Artists for the Poor for two years now, exhibiting her paintings at their annual “Art Walk” event. The organization’s mission is to support, develop and bring sustainability to vulnerable artists, including those with disabilities, low income, refugees and recent graduates of art programs who are just getting started. Mina Baluyot is the Chair of their Board of Directors.
“Katie is an inspiration to all of us,” says Baluyot. “When you meet her, it’s a blessing.”
Baluyot can get pretty excited when she sees artists like Katie developing and sharing their talents, with ever-growing confidence.
“Our focus as an organization is to bring hope,” explains Baluyot. “Rather than just sitting around and feeling discouraged, we want to help artists living in difficult circumstances recognize their gifts and talents, and use them to move out of poverty. We want to walk alongside them, and help them rise above their challenges, whether it’s addictions, homelessness, mental health issues, physical disabilities, or if they’re just starting out as artists, or are new to Canada.
On October 27, 2017, Canadian Artists for the Poor (CAP) will be having an “Appreciation Day” for artists who have participated in their events, and to provide information for new artists interested in taking part in their programs. Besides their annual Art Walk, Canadian Artists for the Poor do team-building workshops in a number of non-profit organizations. For example, a team will be working with residents of Calgary’s downtown Drop-In & Rehab Centre, on a project to recycle old bikes. Participants will be repairing, decorating and re-selling them, as useable works of art. Other workshops offered by CAP give practical help to budding artists, by helping them learn how to price their artwork, develop marketing strategies, create budgets, and speak in public. They hope in the future to accommodate multi-disciplinary art forms as well, such as music and dance.
Gerke appreciates the work that CAP is doing, and especially the chance to be part of Art Walk. As word has gotten out about her artistic endeavours, Gerke is becoming well-known in the local community and elsewhere. Besides selling her art on her website, she exhibits her paintings at art fairs and craft shows, and has appeared on television and in magazine articles. This has led to new opportunities to continue her advocacy efforts on behalf of the disabled with renewed vigor and optimism, promoting accessible, affordable transportation and housing.
“Any way that I can help to open people’s eyes to the realities of living with a disability is great,” says Katie. “I think God wants to use my MS to make an impact – to make a difference.”
Interview with Katie Gerke at Art Walk: