Deadly Brain Lesion Fuels Artist's Talent

Silva's lesion -- also called a hemangioma -- sits in the brain's left temporal lobe, where mood and memory are formed. But it also puts pressure on the brain's visual center and may explain why Silva sees the world differently.

Cavernous malformations are a relatively uncommon cluster of abnormal, dilated blood vessels. They can bleed, causing weakness, numbness, distorted vision and even epileptic seizures.

The damage from bleeding is cumulative, according to Steven Karceski, associate professor of neurology at New York Presbyterian Hospital, who treated Silva.

"When it's a younger person, you assume they will live into their 70s and 80s," he said. " Unless surgery is done, there is concern for memory and language which is on that side of the brain."

Karceski admits the relationship between brain damage and the artistic process is not well-understood, but admits, "taking away the over-thinking can make the creative process richer."

"I think of the brain as like an orchestra with a lot of different instruments," he told "Each brings its own kind of melody or musical notes. Each person in the orchestra is looking to the other person to make the music harmonious and all together they make the symphony. The symphony is like the higher cognitive function."

Dr. Ilya Bogorad met Silva as one of the neurologists on her case at Columbia and said she inspired him to begin a fellowship in the field of epilepsy.

Epilepsy and Artistic Vision

"We are almost certain that she has seizures, but she doesn't have the grand mal and shake," Bogorad told "But I don't know for sure."

Though controversial, "great creative figures" in history have also suffered from seizures, according to Bogorad, including writers Carroll and Fydor Dostoyevsky, as well as painter Vincent van Gogh.

"Her seizures are more experiences inside," he said.

Whatever the science, Silva said what's going on in her brain makes her a better painter.

"I felt I was not arguing with myself as much," she said. "Painting every emotion taught me to be more detailed with the work. I think before I was holding back."

During the filming of the documentary last summer, Silva and three other untrained artists explored their demons on camera while living and painting together at the Full Moon Art Center in East Moriches, N.Y. -- a sanctuary for artistic innovation.

"For many of these artists, there was a difficult world that they were coping with," said Ronnie Wiener, center director and executive producer of the film. "At some point they had this breakthrough that they could and had to express themselves through the form of art."

"Each had a discovery that their art was their commitment to themselves and their struggles," Wiener told

The film's director and Silva's longtime friend, Ross Brodar, agree that her art has become "deeper, darker and more psychological."

"She reminds me of Frida Kahlo," Brodar told "Her mortality is gripping her."

Silva's signature painting, "The Warrior of Mananz" (its name drawn from the symbol of self in the ancient Viking runes), sold for $4,000 at the culmination of the documentary.

'Warrior of Mananz' Filled With Symbolism

The 30- by 40-inch painting is rife with animals and symbolism: a woman's brain split open, with a monkey and squirrel atop her head; a swarming bee's nest; and tree branches as intertwined as the venous lesion in Silva's head.

Today, Silva's painting is prolific as she readies for art shows with Brodar in Amsterdam and Berlin, balancing her fear alongside her artistic dreams. She has even begun a writing project, a fantasy book for young adults.

"Most of the time I want to curl up like a ball and wait until the pain goes away," she said. "When [the lesion] presses, it feels like a bunch of earthworms in the brain."

But, she admits, the experience with brain disease has "definitely spiced things up.

"I'm forced to let it be and I'm comfortable with what's going on," said Silva. "I am happy because I have become stronger."

"At first, I felt so alone," she said. "Now, I feel I can have a mad tea party."

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