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."

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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."

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."