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Apoplexy and Personhood in Katherine Sherwood’s Paintings
by Anjan Chatterjee

Printed with permission. Originally published in the 2008 Golgi's Door National Academy of Sciences Exhibition Catalogue.

Certain facts about Katherine Sherwood are well known. In 1997, at the age of 44, while a practicing artist and a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, she had a hemorrhage within the left hemisphere of her brain. She was one of half a million people in the United States to experience a stroke that year. Following this apoplexy, she was unable to express herself easily using language. She also was paralyzed on the right side of her body. Her language improved over time, although one senses a hesitation as she searches for words in conversation and one hears a cadence in her speech that might not always have been there. Her strength and coordination on the right did not recover as well as her language did. She walks slowly, often requiring assistance. She has no use of her right hand.  Painting with this hand is simply out of the question.

Despite these profound changes in a life turned upside down, Sherwood resumed painting. Adapting to her condition, she trained herself to paint with her left hand. Canvasses are laid horizontally, on a bed platform. To paint, she maneuvers around them, usually in a rolling chair. Before her stroke Sherwood had developed an interest in visual depictions of the brain. These depictions were part of her visual vocabulary. After her stroke these depictions have become a central element of her work. As she describes it, with the stroke her life caught up with her art. Her art deals directly with her experience. And her art has changed along with her life. Sherwood finds that her images “flow” more easily. She is less anxious about them, perhaps less controlling of her output. Her movements on canvas are rendered more gracefully even as she herself moves about her canvas haltingly.

I became interested in Katherine Sherwood after having read about her in the popular press. I am a neurologist keenly interested in the biologic underpinnings of art and creativity. For me, artists like Sherwood who have the resilience to continue to produce a body of work after brain damage, are of great interest.  One can ask, as I do, what might have happened in Sherwood’s brain as it changed following her stroke that “accounts” for her current artistic style. In interpreting her art, one brings to bear ideas of how her damaged hemisphere might have reorganized and how her undamaged hemisphere might now be playing a dominant role in her artistic vision. As a scientist, I hope that study of Sherwood and other artists with brain damage will offer new insights into the nature of creativity and will ground aesthetic theory in the neurosciences.

A research program of trying to understand the biologic bases of art through works like those of Sherwood’s necessarily confronts an inherent tension between science and art. The inductive logic of empirical science means that we strive to extract general principles from particular instances. Sherwood becomes a case study and her paintings become illustrations of principles of brain plasticity. And yet, discarding particular for the sake of principle is at the very least unsatisfying. More often it is deeply offensive especially to those with artistic sensibilities. What could it possibly mean to interpret art by discarding particulars? It is precisely the particulars that animate any artwork. These details engage the eye, rouse the spirit and make the visual image worthy of contemplation.

On seeing Sherwood’s paintings, the viewer is struck by their scale. They have a presence that is not conveyed easily in digital files or on the pages of a book. The paintings loom large and the viewer can easily get lost in them. Forms flow to the edge of the canvasses. One senses an organic quality to these forms that seem to resist the constraints of a rectangular frame. Nestled within these organic forms, mechanical shapes also are present. Some of the objects depicted are known. Others feel familiar but are not quite recognizable. Still others feel alien. The compositions are generally flat. But they also are layered with history, biology and even magic. One senses that history, biology, and even magic exist simultaneously in the same plane for Sherwood.

Sherwood’s paintings might be described as abstract. They also are gestural and expressionist. These descriptions, however, miss what to me is most important.  Sherwood’s paintings are deeply personal. Across her work, one finds a meditation on the nature, the ambiguity and the fragility of the very idea of personhood. Since Plato and Aristotle, thinkers in the western tradition have struggled with whether personhood fundamentally resides in the heart or in the brain. Sherwood’s apoplexy was a rupture of the system that links the two, where the heart pumps its nourishing blood into the brain. At that juncture, when the boundaries of blood and brain were violated, Sherwood’s life toppled. This juncture is the topic of much of her imagery.

Six months after her stroke, Sherwood had an angiogram. Angiograms are X-ray images that investigate the structural integrity of cerebral blood vessels.  The beauty of these angiograms fascinated her. In these vascular trees, as they are sometimes called in medicine, she saw a resemblance to paintings of trees from the Sung dynasty. The delicate patterns of these angiograms became an integral part of her visual vocabulary. Photo-lithographic and digital renditions of angiograms occur frequently in her paintings, as can be seen in Firm of Spirit and in Shape of People.

Broad gestural strokes, characteristic of much of Sherwood’s work, accompany and surround angiograms in her paintings. These dynamic forms convey a visceral sense of power and pulse. They might represent blood, and they might be metaphors for vitality. The shapes formed by these lines themselves subtly reveal heart-like forms most obviously in Firm of Spirit but also in Pump, Drug, Computers. In addition to conveying power, the undulating forms harbor rents and cracks, as though signaling the strain of containing these forces and hinting at their dangers when unbound.

At the same time that Sherwood depicts vascular forms, she directly engages with visions of the nervous system. In Golgi’s Door, Sherwood gives us a beautifully stylized cerebellar purkinje cell. Golgi’s Door, which is also the title of this exhibit, refers to the way that Camillo Golgi’s histologic staining technique opened the door to our understanding of the nervous system. This technique was used to great effect by Ramón y Cajal. In 1906 both scientists shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology. Ironically, from their parallel studies they arrived at different conclusions about the nature of the brain. Golgi viewed the nervous system as a reticulum of interconnected cells. In contrast, Cajal thought that the nervous system was comprised of individuated cells, an idea that is now known as the neuron doctrine. The neuron doctrine, a cornerstone of contemporary neuroscience, emphasizes the idea that each nerve cell is a distinct functional unit in the brain.  Ironically, recent work, especially in cognitive neuroscience, has returned to emphasizing the fact that neurons fire together to form coherent activity patterns. These network properties of neurons return us to the idea of a neuronal ensemble as a critical functional unit. In playing with these ideas of individuation and connectedness, Sherwood is also exploring our dual nature as individual and as communal, a point to which I shall return.

In Sherwood’s depictions of the nervous system, one senses another tension inherent at the interface of science and art. In Pump, Drug, Computers she gives us beautiful drawings of the nervous system published by Vesalius. Vesalius emphasized dissection as a means to understand human anatomy. Cajal, who was also an artist, used the Golgi method to visualize for the first time how far axons and dendrites, delicate neuronal filaments, extend away from the nerve cell body. Even as she pays tribute to these scientists who revolutionized our understanding of the nervous system and communicated their discoveries through their art, Sherwood juxtaposes their depictions with modern clinical images. We now scrutinize the nervous system using magnets and electrons with an objective accuracy Vesalius could not have imagined.  What have we learned as these images of our interiors become more accurate, more objective and more commonplace? Have we fooled ourselves into thinking that we now know ourselves any better? Is this penetrating gaze accompanied by a deeper understanding? Sherwood suggests not. In paying tribute to Vesalius, Sherwood offers her own dissections of our anatomy. In paying tribute to Cajal and Golgi she challenges us to extend the view of our own bodies and our selves.

Sherwood’s visual meditations on her own life and the tenuous boundaries of personhood extend notions of our bodies and our selves to the mechanical at one end and to the magical at the other. We have long used glasses to extend our vision and canes to extend our reach. More recently cell phones, cameras and computers extend our dialogues and remembrances well beyond the limits of adjacent space and time. As if that were not enough, we walk around with cardiac pacemakers, artificial joints and cochlear implants. We have invited the inanimate into our bodies, collapsing a fundamental division between living and non-living. Recognizing this evolving sense of our selves as also mechanical, Sherwood includes rectangular monochromatic patches in many of her works. These geometric shapes form compositional prosthetics around which the organic forms flow. She is explicit about this biomechanical interface in Pump, Drug, Computer, which refers to her own baclofen pump inserted in 2004 to deliver medications directly into her central nervous system. Baclofen is a medication used to relieve spasticity, a form of muscle tightness that can follow brain damage. Sherwood conveys the irony of machines infusing some life back into her limbs frozen into mechanical stiffness.

Most intriguing to me, and perhaps most challenging to the viewer, is Sherwood’s introduction of magic into the midst of her biological and mechanical ruminations. She uses symbols from the text Lemegeton, also known as The Lesser Key of Solomon. This text appeared in the 17th century, although it is likely to have earlier roots. The symbols that Sherwood uses are said to have been drawn by King Solomon and deal with invocations and rituals used to invoke spirits and demons. They are also considered to be a source of his wisdom. In Firm of Spirit she uses the Solomon Seal for Cimeies. Cimeies makes all who ask bold of heart, firm of spirit and heroic in battle. In Shape of People, Sherwood uses the Solomon Seal for Zepar, who can change the shape of people as desired. What are we to make of these magical incantations? The initial reaction is that the insertions of these seals are clearly autobiographic declarations. They represent invocations of Sherwood’s own hope and process of healing. Sherwood is laying herself bare. Her art is motivated by the changes wrought in and on her, as she expresses her aspirations and desires through these talismanic depictions. She even associates each seal with a specific family member or friend who has passed on as if to connect with and protect them in the afterworld.

Another view of these symbols of magic and wisdom challenges the viewer in a deeper way.  The challenge is to absorb a fundamental incomprehensibility of events. We can reassuringly pretend to ourselves that life-style choices—not smoking, proper diet and regular exercise protect us. And while such choices certainly help, they are no guarantee of health. As a neurologist, I routinely see people whose lives are ripped asunder for reasons that defy easy explanation: an aneurysm ruptures, a head is struck, an immune system rages, an infection invades. Some people recover, some don’t. These events are not subject to logic or reason. Their mystery lies in their deep incomprehensibility as spirits both good and bad are raised. Every person struck apoplectically might wonder “Why me?”  This question has a deep echo in every able-bodied person willing to absorb this incomprehensibility directly, “Why not me?” There are no answers to these questions in the face of the thin membrane separating ability and disability. It is a membrane that, if we live long enough, inevitably ruptures. We all need these symbols of hope and ways to contain demons.

As suggested by the title of this exhibit, Sherwood’s paintings work as a kind of histologic study of personhood. As she considers blood and brains, mechanics and magic, we are struck by our dual nature, reminiscent of the dual nature of neurons explored by Golgi and Cajal. Our experiences separate and individuate us. Many of us will not experience Sherwood’s apoplexy. Yet, through her paintings, we find ourselves connected. We all face the fragility of our existence and the tenuous nature of our personhood. In Sherwood’s paintings we see reflected the ongoing reorganization of our selves as we navigate life’s vicissitudes.


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