Wall Street Journal
STROKE A Tragedy Transforms A Right-Handed Artist Into a Leftyand
By Peter Waldman, Staff Reporter of the Wall Street Journal
BERKELEY, Calif.At first, a splitting headache, then vertigo, then collapse. By the time paramedics wheeled Katherine Sherwood into the emergency room at Alta Bates Hospital here, the right side of her body was completely paralyzed, and she couldn't speak.
Ms. Sherwood, a seemingly healthy 44 year-old, had suffered a massive stroke. Doctors doubted that the painter and University of California art professor would walk again, let alone paintif she survived at all.
That was three years ago. Today, at 47, Ms. Sherwood's artistic career is thriving as never before. Still paralyzed on her right side, she has taught herself to paint left-handed. The result, to her own amazement, has been a flurry of work that has turned the obscure painter into one of the art world's rising stars. Her canvases are selling briskly for the first time in her 25 years as an artist. WhatŐs more, Ms. Sherwood says paintings now flow from her brush without the creative angst she experienced as a right-handed artist.
"Her work has been radically transformed," says Larry Rinder, curator of contemporary American art at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art, which features two of Ms. Sherwood's large abstract paintings in its current Biennial Exhibition, a prestigious showcase for new art. "It is very rare for me to see work that is that instantaneously impressive, that fresh and powerful," Mr. Rinder says.
The artist's new found success raises an intriguing question: Could the stroke, by injuring part of Ms. Sherwood's brain, have enhanced her powers of creativity? The answer, say brain researchers, is quite possibly yes.
Paul Corballis, a neuroscientist at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H., offers a startling hypothesis, yet one grounded in the latest research on the human mind: that Ms. Sherwood's stroke, by damaging or disconnecting the part of her brain responsible for logical reasoning, may have freed up the rest of her mind to think more creatively, unencumbered by normal neurological constraints.
"The thinking now is that all our great human intelligence comes with a hidden cost in other arenas," says Dr. Corballis.
This theory can't be tested inside Ms. Sherwood's head, of course, and other factors could account for her success. But Ms. Sherwood agrees that the stroke drastically altered the way she thinks and paints.
"Sometimes I look at my work now and ask, 'Did I paint that?'" she says. "There's a sense of disconnect that was never there before. It's almost as if the ideas just pass through me, instead of originating in my head."
An art-history major in college, Ms. Sherwood didn't start painting until the end of her undergraduate years. Highly cerebral in her approach, she incorporated a range of esoteric images transvestites, medieval seals, spy photos, bingo cardsinto high-concept pieces with themes such as sexual identity, militarism and luck. Her 1995 self-portrait, 'Old Enemies," depicts a snowman-shaped figure with scraps of bingo cards for legs and photographs of hydrogen bombs exploding in her womb"suggesting procreation and nuclear apocalypse are equally matters of chance," according to the catalog for the exhibit that earned Ms. Sherwood tenure at Berkeley in 1996.
An 'Unburdened' Feeling
"Somehow my left hand doesn't reflect the struggleemotionally or on the canvasthat was always there in the past," she says.
The upshot is a style critics and curators describe as "raw,"" intuitive," and "of pure intent." The Whitney's Mr. Rinder, comparing two works, from before and after her stroke, says the earlier painting looks "studied ... relying on conventional symmetries." circles on the pre-stroke canvas "look like they were drawn to be irregular," he says; circles on the post stroke painting "just are irregular." "There is something more visceral, less intellectual, about these (recent) pictures," says David Ross, who as former head of the Whitney and now director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, has known Ms. Sherwood since the 1970's. "Her painting now is much better, much more interesting, than before. That's quite miraculous, but it's true."
Last year, Ms. Sherwood won the Adeline Kent Award, given annually by the San Francisco Art Institute to a top California artist. Then her work, including the 1999 painting "Facility of Speech," was selected for the Whitney's Biennial, and she became a finalist for a major S.F. MOMA award. Meanwhile, collectors have snapped up most of her works from the past two years; sales were sporadic at best before the stroke. Now, her large paintings sell for $10,000 and up.
"The paintings are breathtaking," says Laurence Mathews, an executive with an art-auction Web site in San Francisco who has five of Ms. Sherwood's recent canvases in his personal collection. Mr. Mathews, without knowing her story, fell in love with Ms. Sherwood's work at a gallery exhibit last year, he says. He doesn't care for her earlier paintings. "She gained some sort of power, some clarity, from the stroke," he says.
History is replete with examples of other artists who overcame disabilities and went on to greater success. Portrait painter Chuck Close, for example, has done his most highly acclaimed work since being rendered a near-total quadriplegic by a spinal blood clot in 1988. He paints with his teeth and a makeshift Velcro hand.
In Oliver Sack's 1995 book, An Anthropologist on Mars, the neurologist writes about a 65-year-old artist who goes completely color-blind as the result of a head injury. Morose from his loss of color, the artist, whom Dr. Sacks identifies only as Jonathan I., becomes nocturnal and paints terrifying pictures of dark, raging faces and dismembered body parts. But after two years or so, as his memory of color fades, he comes to feel "privileged" to see "a world of pure form, uncluttered by color." He undergoes a creative renewal, and his paintings are lauded by admirers who assume his "black-and-white period" is just another artistic phase.
In Ms. Sherwood's case, it took months after the stroke before she even considered painting again. Her speech recovered much more quickly, at first with a new accent that some friends attributed to her New Orleans upbringing. But her frozen right side defied all treatmentfrom conventional electromagnetic therapy to alternative forms such as acupuncture and Reiki massage. As weeks turned into months, doctors warned her that the paralysis might be permanent.
"I figured her art career was over," recalls her neurologist, Randall Starkey.
A Fit of Depression
"In two minutes," she says, "I went from being a healthy 44-year-old woman to the equivalent of an 80-year-old invalid."
Her epiphany came in a most unlikely place: on an X-ray table in her radiologist's office. Six months after the stroke, Ms. Sherwood was having a carotid angiogram to check for any further bleeding inside her brain. Heavily sedated, she glimpsed the image of her brain's blood vessels on a computer screen. It reminded her of a favorite painting, a 1,000-year-old Chinese landscape. She demanded a copy of the angiogram. "The technician thought I was crazy," Ms. Sherwood says.
Within a few days she and an assistant were back in her studio, cutting and pasting photolithographs of bright red ganglia onto elaborately enameled canvases. Her left hand took control from there, scrawling wide, loopy lines of paint over and around the angiogram, in designs that vaguely evoked her favorite calligraphic seals from medieval texts. Reborn a lefty, Ms. Sherwood began the most productive period of her life.
Out of the Way
"I try to stay out of her way," he says. "I don't want to spoil what's going on in there."
A year after the stroke, when Ms. Sherwood exhibited some of her new paintings for the first time, a San Francisco gallery owner asked how it felt to be a better painter left-handed than right-handed. "I was horrified," she says. "But I have to acknowledge itŐs true."
How could this be? For decades, neuroscientists have known the brain's left and right sides' house different mental functions. Notably, the left hemisphere, which controls the body's right side, is dominant in language and complex thought, while the right side, which controls the bodyŐs left side, handles advanced perceptual tasks. But that doesn't mean scientists are "left-brained" and artists are "right-brained." In a normal person, the two sides of the brain are intricately linked, assuring a seamless presence of all types of skills.
Still, it is possible, neuroscientists say, that given the location of Ms. Sherwood's stroke, in the so-called internal capsule of her left hemisphere, the hemorrhage remapped circuitry inside her head in a way that strengthened her more-artistic right side. Specifically, they say, the stroke could have at least partially disabled the specialized system in the left hemisphere that researchers have dubbed the "interpreter." This system constantly seeks explanations for why events occur; seeks order and reason, even when there isn't any. Research has shown it can overwhelm other mental processes, so weakening it could improve one's art, experts say.
In a 1998 experiment conducted by Dartmouth brain researcher George Wolford, participants were asked to guess if a light was going to appear at the top or bottom of a computer screen. The experiment was rigged so the light would flash at the top 80% of the time but in a random sequence. The human subjects invariable tried to find a pattern, and thus never guessed correctly more than 68% of the time. By contrast, rats, which don't have an "interpreter" bullying their thoughts, learned to select the top bar every time, scoring 80%.
That "thin moment," or what athletes call "the zone," is the envy of chess masters and pro golfers, says Dartmouth's Dr. Corballis. "Many of them report performing at their best on 'autopilot,' he says, "when they are oblivious to what they are doing."
So does Ms. Sherwood. Left-brained or right, she worries now about losing the magic touch as suddenly as she found it. In recent months she has been regaining her mental facility for analyzing and discussing paintings in academic terms, which she lost completely after the stroke. She even gave some thought to teaching a graduate-level seminar next fall, something she hasnŐt done for five years. But she changed her mind.
"I suddenly realized I'd have the same mental burdens I had before the stroke," she says. "My career's at a totally different level now, and I just feel obligated towards that."