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Art & Architecture

Her Life Caught Up With Her Work

A stroke clarified issues painter Katherine Sherwood had long been exploring.

April 28, 2002|SUSAN EMERLING

BERKELEY — Katherine Sherwood began painting images of the brain seven years before suffering her own "brain event," a cerebral hemorrhage in 1997 at the age of 44.

She had also spent years exploring the notion of chance, using bingo cards in her work as a metaphor for "that moment that can come into your life and just change you utterly in a second."

A tenured art professor at UC Berkeley, Sherwood even mentored the department's disabled students, one of whom, a quadriplegic who had suffered a spinal injury in a diving accident, was her teaching assistant at the time of her stroke.

Sitting in her home studio, which has been outfitted with a large low table and a rolling chair to accommodate the fact that she no longer has use of her right hand and only limited use of her right leg, she marvels at the degree of synchronicity--or meaningful coincidences--in her life. "I was dealing with all these things intellectually," she says. "When I had the stroke, my life caught up with my art."

Sherwood, who for decades has worn a clump of amulets around her neck ("they don't work unless they're a gift," she says), was born in New Orleans. She studied art at UC Davis and the San Francisco Art Institute, and made installation art in New York's East Village in the 1980s. In 1989, she headed back to the West Coast when she landed a teaching job at Berkeley.

During her first years here, Sherwood, now 49, began to create a series of highly researched paintings that combined photolithographs of medical brain scans and satellite photos. She borrowed apocalyptic imagery from medieval illuminated manuscripts and talismanic images of the so-called seals of King Solomon from a 1975 book that cataloged occult practices in the 17th century.

In 1996, Sherwood made tenure. With that and a satisfying body of work finished, the seemingly healthy 44-year-old thought she might relax awhile. But in May 1997, during a graduate critique, she collapsed.

Sherwood spent six weeks in the hospital and months in bed, able to get up only a few hours a day. Her husband, painter Jeff Adams, reorganized their lives and took on sole care of their daughter, Odette, now 9. It would be half a year before Sherwood the painter reasserted herself.

"Seven months after I had the stroke, I had to have a cerebral angiogram," she says. "I was really afraid because one of the side effects can be that you can have another stroke. Unlike the other tests I'd done, it didn't show the meat of the brain, it only showed the arterial system. I got up from the test and there were all these monitors with these images on them. I thought to myself, they're so beautiful. They reminded me of Sung dynasty landscape paintings in China. Right away, I said I need these images."

The beauty of the images was matched by the beauty of the test results, which showed that she was not in danger of a recurrence. "The confluence of seeing those images and finding out that I was OK was very significant."

Although she had insisted she would only resume painting when she regained the use of her right hand, she went back into the studio and taught herself to paint with her left hand. Her first task, with the help of assistants and a reorganized studio, was to "very minimally" complete the three canvases she had begun before her illness. When her health insurance ran out, she applied for and received grants, which paid for more therapy and more assistants to help her in the studio.

"The act of painting was the best occupational therapy. I was surprised how much came back in the studio," Sherwood says. She used the prerogatives of tenure, following her year of sick leave with an early sabbatical. She reasoned that "I couldn't go back and teach art without being an artist and making art." During this time, she began a new body of work that is both an evolution of her earlier work and a radical departure.

She eliminated the satellite photos and personalized the neurological imagery, using those angiograms of her brain seen from the inside out. Gone were literal depictions of chance (the bingo cards), and tightly scripted compositions.

"I almost never work symmetrically anymore," says Sherwood, acknowledging her obvious post-stroke asymmetries.

Working much more freely and abstractly than before the stroke, she has continued to focus on the 17th century talismans, although in a much less literal way. "I use the seals as a map. I get a direction that I want to go in and I just follow what feels good." Painting the seals over the squiggly lines of the angiograms, the physical and the metaphysical mingle in one visual fabric.

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