The Walters Art Museum
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Puzzles of the Brain: An Artist’s Journey through Amnesia

September 17–December 11, 2011

The Walters Art Museum
600 North Charles Street
Baltimore, MD 21201

The Walters is partnering with the Cognitive Science Department of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts & Science at The Johns Hopkins University to present a focus show of approximately 36 works exploring the impact of severe brain damage on the life and creativity of an artist. The show will tell the story of Lonni Sue Johnson, a successful artist, who 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.

Prior to her illness, Johnson was a well-known artist and illustrator, whose works were featured in publications such as The New Yorker and The New York Times. Her art was characterized by the clever use of visual elements presented in intricate combinations to convey meaning. With this multi-level approach, Johnson invited viewers to inspect her work closely to discover new elements within a hierarchically structured theme.

After her illness, Johnson slowly recovered the ability to create art using some of her earlier, iconic elements. A breakthrough came a few months after her illness when a friend gave her a puzzle book that required her to find a set of target words embedded within a large matrix of letters. Within a week she began to make word lists of her own, which she then inserted into grids that she created. Sometimes, the word lists were alphabetical and sometimes thematic. Soon, the word grids became artworks. For example, Things You Hang in a Closet yielded a drawing of a hanger with an embedded grid housing the words from an associated list of clothing.

After three years, Johnson’s portfolio of recovery art is vast. Some drawings are remarkably simple; others are fantastically complex with rich detail extending well beyond the word grid. When viewed chronologically, the collection tells an inspiring story of how an artist has come to cope with a devastating illness and has ultimately triumphed over it.

Puzzles of the Brain: An Artist’s Journey through Amnesia has been organized by the Walters Art Museum in partnership with the Cognitive Science Department of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at The Johns Hopkins University. The exhibition received generous support from The Johns Hopkins University Brain Science Institute and the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.



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