BY LISA COLLIER COOL
Vincent Van Gogh ranks as one of the most brilliant—and prolific—artists of all time, painting hundreds of masterpieces ablaze with vivid colors, bold brushstrokes, and swirling coronas. He also experienced seizures, hallucinations, and other symptoms throughout his short life that many historians, his own doctors, and Van Gogh himself attributed to a neurologic disease: epilepsy.
Other famous artists, including Willem de Kooning, who developed Alzheimer's disease, created masterful works of enduring genius while living with neurologic conditions. More recently, Chuck Close, an American painter and photographer, has talked about how his various neurologic conditions both enhance and limit his artistic output (bit.ly/NN-ChuckClose).
We asked sculptor Rebecca Kamen how having dyslexia has shaped her work.
To Rebecca Kamen, the periodic table of elements most students have to memorize in high school is a thing of beauty. So are black holes, fossils, and Einstein's theory of relativity—all of which have served as inspiration for her science-influenced sculptures. What particularly fascinates the 66-year-old artist from McLean, VA, is the intricate wiring of the human brain.
As an artist-in-residence in neuroscience at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), she created one of her best-known sculptures, Butterflies of the Soul, which was inspired by the landmark discoveries about the nervous system of Santiago Ramon y Cajal, the 1906 Nobel Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine. "Studying the thousands of drawings he made of the brain's neurons under the microscope, each of which was a tiny masterpiece—and discussing them with neuroscientists at the NIH—was life-changing," says Kamen.
Entranced by Cajal's pictures of Purkinje cells (neurons in the brain's cerebellar cortex), she created a sculpture of vein-like "butterflies" perched on green mylar "branches," each of which was hand stained in a process similar to one scientists use to prepare slides of cells for viewing under the microscope. Kamen's passion for the brain's neurons is fueled by the fact that she has dyslexia, a neurologic disorder that affects about 10 percent of people worldwide, according to Dyslexia International.
"Everyone assumes that dyslexia is a reading problem because it's often diagnosed after a child starts struggling with written materials in school, but it actually starts at a much younger age with difficulty processing spoken language," says Paula Tallal, PhD, adjunct professor at the Salk Institute and the Center for Human Development at the University of California San Diego. "For example, a child with dyslexia may have difficulty processing words with similar sounds, such as 'dad' and 'bad,' which in turn interferes with reading fluency."
When Kamen was growing up in the 1950s in Philadelphia, her disorder went undiagnosed. "Schoolwork, especially reading and math problems, was such a struggle that I couldn't get into college in my state until my parents and the principal wrote letters advocating for me, and even then I was only admitted on probation," she recalls. "One guidance counselor asked my parents why they were wasting their money sending me to college because, in his opinion, I wasn't cut out for it."
Kamen proved him wrong by not only graduating from Penn State University with a degree in art education but also earning two master's degrees. "It wasn't until I became a college professor myself that a friend and fellow teacher figured out that I had dyslexia. She pointed out that instead of getting most of my information from reading, which remains difficult for me, I go out in the world and learn through experience, such as talking to astrophysicists and neuroscientists in their laboratories when I'm working on sculptures, or holding things in my hands and examining how they work."
A retired professor at Northern Virginia Community College, where she taught art for 35 years, Kamen remains devoted to turning neuroscience into art. Recently, she helped patients at the Levine Children's Hospital in Charlotte, NC, where she was an artist in residence, create paintings and voice recordings that she combined into a multimedia sculpture of a tree with its branches rendered to look like the brain's neurons. The project was sponsored by the McColl Center for the Arts. "One young patient I collaborated with, an 18-year-old who spent several months flat on his back in the ICU, found it so inspiring to create art during his recovery that he's now volunteering at the hospital to show other kids the amazing power of the brain to create beauty, even when it's injured."
For more about Rebecca Kamen and her work, go to http://RebeccaKamen.com. To view a video of her art project with patients at the Levine Children's Hospital,visit bit.ly/Kamen-ArtProject. For interviews of artists with other neurologic conditions, go to bit.ly/NN-TheArtOfIllness.