Human creativity never ceases to amaze me. Scientific research that tries to study and identify factors on the creative process enthrall me. You may have seen this in my previous posts, Synesthesia in Art & Fashion and A Stroke of Genius- Sudden Artistic Output. These posts discuss different neurological conditions and how they impact artists. It was serendipity that brought me to the Morven Museum to see Puzzles of the Brain: An Artist’s Journey through Amnesia.
Lonni Sue Johnson was a professional illustrator for 31 years. Her art was published by The New York Times and appeared on covers of The New Yorker magazine. She also did illustrations for The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, the medical field, major corporations and the government. You may recognize some of her covers for The New Yorker, below:
But in 2007, Lonni Sue contracted encephalitis. Encephalitis is acute inflammation of the brain, which can cause brain damage and death. Lonni Sue had such an acute case of encephalitis that she had permanent brain damage in the hypocampus. This is the region of the brain that stores memory. Lonni Sue short and long-term memory were affected. She had to relearn how to walk, talk, and eat. She couldn’t remember past events, like her marriage or the death of her father. She also has difficulty remember things she has just done. (Very similar to the film, Memento.)
Lonnie Sue did retain a sense of identity – she knew who she was, that she had been an artist. She also retained a rich and extensive vocabulary. Slowly, she began relearning motor skills. In an attempt to get her back to art, Lonnie Sue’s mother devised games to get Lonnie to draw. First, she drew shapes and had Lonni Sue copy them. As Lonni Sue’s motor skills progressed, her mother would draw squiggles and stray lines and instruct her to “finish the picture”. Lonnie Sue began creating art again. Her new style incorporated very similar characteristics to her previous work, but included words.
The very fact that Lonnie Sue was able to recover her artistic ability baffled the scientific community. John Hopkins University is studying Lonnie Sue and her brain activity to learn more about the creative process. (Watch the video below to hear more about their studies) It seems that what we know about ourselves, or what we think we know about ourselves, has very little to do with creativity or personal style.
But what was really eery about the exhibition was the first work of art I viewed. It is a drawing of a clock, that really resembles a mandala. (A mandala is a circular piece of Buddhist art that reminds the viewer of our relationship to the infinite realms that exist beyond and within our bodies and minds). Inscribed underneath a clock is a quote that reads:
“There is no permanent forgetting. We may seem to forget a person, a place, a state of being, a past life, but meanwhile what we are doing is selecting a new cast for the reproduction of the same drama.” – Anais Nim
For more information on Lonnie Sue Johnson, please visit: