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St. Petersburg sculptor with Parkinson’s is able to create again

A treatment lessened Donald Gialanella’s tremor. He created the mustache sculpture outside the Dalí Museum.
Sculptor Donald Gialanella, 65, works to tighten objects on a sculpture as other sculptures are seen while working in his studio Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in St. Petersburg. Gialanella, who has Parkinson’s, underwent a medical procedure that has all but cured the tremor in his right hand. The sculptures were inspired by the medical procedure he received.
Sculptor Donald Gialanella, 65, works to tighten objects on a sculpture as other sculptures are seen while working in his studio Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in St. Petersburg. Gialanella, who has Parkinson’s, underwent a medical procedure that has all but cured the tremor in his right hand. The sculptures were inspired by the medical procedure he received. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Dec. 23, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — After the successful medical procedure, the first thing he did was drink water from a glass held in his right hand.

The first thing he wanted to do was create a sculpture without needing someone else to perform the complicated manual labor.

Donald Gialanella hadn’t been able to do either since his Parkinson’s disease tremor worsened five years ago.

“I went through dark times,” Gialanella said.

Today, due to that procedure, the tremor is barely noticeable.

“I won’t call it a cure, because I still have Parkinson’s,” the 65-year-old St. Petersburg sculptor said. “But I will call it a miracle.”

Now, he is working on what he says is a “top secret project.”

Well, the project is not a secret, but the design is.

Gialanella was chosen to create the cauldron to be lit during the opening ceremony of the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando in June.

Through a news release, the Special Olympics Committee called the cauldron an “iconic symbol for the 2022 USA Game” that will hold the “Flame of Hope.”

Gialanella was not chosen due to his Parkinson’s. The selection committee preferred his concept to others.

Still, Gialanella believes his Parkinson’s also makes him a good choice.

“I can sympathize and empathize with the athletes,” he said, “and the struggles they go through.”

His work is world renowned, having been on public exhibit in England, Norway and throughout the Middle East.

Collectors of Gialanella sculptures include Angelina Jolie and Jimmy Buffett.

He has shown his art on The Howard Stern Show.

Locally, he is best known for the Salvador Dalí mustache sculpture in the Avant Garden of the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg.

That was the first major sculpture he created after he learned he had Parkinson’s in 2016.

Sculptor Donald Gialanella, 65, cuts a discarded plastic toy in half while working in his studio Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in St. Petersburg.
Sculptor Donald Gialanella, 65, cuts a discarded plastic toy in half while working in his studio Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in St. Petersburg. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

“I didn’t need an assistant, but I used one for some parts of it,” Gialanella said. “I was still pretty functional.”

Prior to the procedure, that was also the last time an assistant was optional when creating a complicated sculpture.

“I was able to design and do simple tasks, but had to rely on people when things like welding and cutting were needed,” he said.

Parkinson’s is a neurologic disorder that develops when the brain produces insufficient dopamine, a chemical that helps the body regulate movement. Common symptoms include tremors, stiffness and slowness, but it could progress to a loss of balance and dementia.

Gialanella considers himself lucky because his only symptom is a tremor, primarily on the right side of his body, but said doctors once described his as among “the most extreme they’d ever seen. I couldn’t manipulate tools. It was debilitating.”

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He was able to use his left hand for everyday needs like eating, drinking and brushing his teeth, but it never came easy and was frustrating for the former power lifter.

Gialanella wondered if the time would come when he could not create at all.

Then, he heard about the procedure offered by the Cleveland Clinic.

“It’s called high-intensity focused ultrasound, or HIFU for short,” Gialanella said.

According to the Cleveland Clinic’s website:

Over 1,000 ultrasound beams “are concentrated on a specific area in the brain’s thalamus,” which is a “relay station of motor and sensory signals.”

Parkinson’s causes the thalamic circuitry to become abnormal, which results in tremors. The ultrasound causes “a tiny burn or lesion on the targeted spot on the thalamus,” which interrupts the abnormal activity and relieves the tremors.

Patients “report over a 50 percent improvement in their tremors three months after the procedure,” but there is no guarantee it will work.

Sculptor Donald Gialanella, 65, works on a giant fish made from discarded items in his studio Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in St. Petersburg.
Sculptor Donald Gialanella, 65, works on a giant fish made from discarded items in his studio Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in St. Petersburg. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Gialanella immediately had nearly 100 percent improvement following the procedure in mid-November.

“I am amazed at what a relief it is to be smooth and natural in my movements,” he emailed the Tampa Bay Times days after the procedure. “It’s like a rebirth.”

Since then, the tremor has returned, but only slightly, Gialanella said, allowing him to perform work on sculptures he designs.

The first, which he is still completing, will be displayed at ArtFest Fort Myers in February.

It’s a wooden fish measuring 20 feet long and, when complete, 23 feet high with trash fastened to it.

Gialanella will surround the sculpture with chicken wire and ask passersby to throw their water bottles and cans inside the pen.

“It symbolizes that our fish are swimming in a sea of trash,” he said.

Sculptor Donald Gialanella, 65, affixes a plastic toy to a large piece shaped as a fish while working in his studio Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in St. Petersburg.
Sculptor Donald Gialanella, 65, affixes a plastic toy to a large piece shaped as a fish while working in his studio Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in St. Petersburg. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

He refused to divulge any details about the Special Olympics cauldron.

“I told you,” he said with a laugh, “it’s top secret.”

But Gialanella readily showed off a handful of smaller sculptures he created.

They are wooden silhouettes of human heads fastened with metal gears.

“That’s the brain,” Gialanella said, while rubbing his head. “The brain is complicated, huh?”

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