Monday, October 31, 2011

"Puzzles of the Brain..Artist's Journey through Amnesia" Exhibit of works before, during recovery from encephalitis

I had the privilege of working with this artist, Lonni Sue Johnson, in the 1980s
and again when she created the TLT Group's logo for us in 1998.  She was patient when I was slow to see how her images could elevate my fumbling attempts to translate ideas into words.

She offered insights and humor - and so does her work.  She represented multiple, complex ideas with deceptively charming drawings in warm, soft colors.  

I was saddened by recent news of  Lonni Sue's encephalitis, and intrigued by the exhibit at the Walters Museum in Baltimore (co-sponsored by the Cognitive Science Department of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts & Science at The Johns Hopkins University).   Finally, this past Saturday, Sally and I took our nephew to the  " of approximately 25 works exploring the impact of severe brain damage on the life and creativity of an artist." - from "Puzzles of the Brain: An Artist's Journey through Amnesia"

The exhibit displays Lonni Sue Johnson's works chronologically along with explanations of her brain damage.  I couldn't simply enjoy the first sequence of pictures that showed her growing success as an artist and commercial illustrator (several New Yorker covers, etc.), because I knew that trajectory had been broken.  Then came the hand-made word puzzles and other non-paintings, with explanations of how and why she couldn't paint or draw or remember or talk or move.  

Finally, the third set of images offers some hope.  Lonni Sue's partial but extraordinary recovery continues today.  The love and dedication and skill of Lonni Sue's mother and sister and the medical professionals are clear and admirable.  She has regained some of her ability to use words and to produce art.  She is still communicating ideas and feelings.  She can recognize her old work and her new work as her own.  And so can we.  Her spirit is still there. 

For more, including pictures, video(s), see below and visit the Walters Museum exhibit:  "Puzzles of the Brain: An Artist's Journey through Amnesia" (free admission, open Wednesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m; exhibit ends Dec 11, 2011).

The following 4 paragraphs are excerpts from "Johns Hopkins Researchers Study Artistic Aspect of Illustrator’s Illness," News release from Johns Hopkins Univ., September 12, 2011, MEDIA CONTACT: Lisa De Nike

"She suffered severe amnesia resulting from an attack of encephalitis in late 2007. The illness caused substantial brain damage, resulting in the complete loss of artistic productivity. Through intensive art therapy led by her mother Margaret Kennard Johnson (also an accomplished artist), Johnson began to produce a portfolio of 'recovery art.  Her art provides unique insight into the devastating effects of amnesia, as well as the complementary roles played by language and memory in her artistic expression. Johnson's case gives researchers a rare opportunity to contribute to the scientific understanding of brain function and art, and to apply that understanding to an appreciation of the synergies between art and science.

"Lonni Sue Johnson’s quirky, clever, colorful illustrations appeared in such prominent publications as The New Yorker and The New York Times before an attack of viral encephalitis in 2007 left the artist (who also was a pilot and an organic dairy farmer) with severe, memory-impairing brain damage." 
"... the exhibition features more than three dozen drawings exploring the impact of severe brain damage on the life and creativity of this artist. Viewed chronologically, the collection tells an inspiring story of how one artist is moving forward in the aftermath of a devastating illness. The compilation also poses fascinating scientific questions about the nature of perception, cognition, imagination, creativity and the brain, says cognitive scientist Barbara Landau, Dick and Lydia Todd Professor at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins, and principal investigator on the study.

" was a word-search puzzle book given to her by a friend that sparked a breakthrough in Johnson’s recovery as an artist post-encephalitis. Johnson quickly began to make word lists of her own, which she then inserted into grids by theme or in alphabetical order. Some of the drawings are remarkably simple and others are fantastically complex.

YouTube video (3.5 mins)

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