Deadly Brain Lesion Fuels Artist's Talent


At night, Alison Silva sleeps with the light on, and sometimes she'll keep the whole house alight to ward off the intense hallucinations.

The childlike New Jersey painter with the vivid imagination has always had migraines, but just over two years ago, the headaches became fiercer and the terrifying visions intensified.

"Most of them are pretty much ghostly," Silva, 33, told "Sometimes I see shadows in the room and it almost looks like it's snowing, like fairies. It's an out-of-body experience."

VIDEO: Artist sanctuary

December 2006 brought about what she calls "the big bang."

"It pretty much felt like a carnival ride -- flashing lights, wavy lines, everything was blurry and I felt very clumsy," Silva said.

Doctors at Columbia's New York Presbyterian Hospital found a dangerous web of blood vessels tangled in her brain -- a cavernous malformation that was oozing blood and could lead to fatal hemorraging or seizures.

Fearing that she might die, Silva was at first depressed and turned inward. But when she had the courage to paint again -- in oil, acrylics and Japanese ink -- her fantastical imagery took on new depth and inspiration.

Documentary Explores Outsider Art

Her inner battle is part of a documentary on outsider or visionary art, work by self-taught artists that is outside the mainstream. The film, "The Artists' Sanctuary" by Dog Day Productions, will be submitted to film festivals this year.

Ultimately, Silva chose not to have surgery, knowing that the very thing that might kill her had also allowed her painting to flourish.

"I was scared the operation would change my art," she said. "I wanted to paint every day after that. One detail, one emotion almost became like a diary. It put me on the edge and forced me to be even more creative."

Like others who say their art was inspired by their visions -- Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allen Poe and Sylvia Plath -- Silva says she feels a "kinship."

"I always kind of felt like I was running around in Wonderland," said Silva, whose close friends call her "Alice."

"I'm afraid, but knowing that other creative people went through this stuff emotionally and were misunderstood, you become brave," she said.

Numerous medical cases point to a relationship between brain injury and creativity.

In 2003, a Washington woman who had been adept at math and science underwent surgery for a brain tumor in the same region as Silva's lesion.

Brain Injuries Fuel Art

Afterward in art therapy sessions, the 43-year-old reported that even though she "couldn't even draw a stick figure before," she had "unleashed" a budding artist.

In another case reported in the 2006 issue of Neurology magazine, a woman whose frontal and temporal lobes had deteriorated because of dementia developed new artistic skills. As her disease got worse, her art improved.

Researchers concluded that as disease damages the thinking side of the brain, other emotional parts have "freer rein."

Such was the case with former businesswoman Judi Kaufman of Los Angeles, who has had a succession of brain tumor operations since she was 49.

"I was pretty much a prude, big time, and never talked about sex ever in the 1950s," said Kaufman, 65, who now writes poetry, much of it about sex, and does sculptures.

Grateful for her new gift, she founded the nonprofit Art of the Brain at UCLA , which helps promote artists with brain injuries.

"Most of us lose our self-esteem," she said. "We do things to help them believe in themselves."

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...