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How Art Helped Me Heal After a Brain Injury

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Part One

The biographies of artists and of their works are as curious to me as their creations. What compelled them to pay attention to their creativity? Why did they choose to create a particular piece? How did their creative pursuits change the lives of others? In what historical context did their art make an impact? These multi-layered stories transcend time and space by creating heartfelt connections between the viewer and the artist, a connection that is equally as fascinating to me as the aesthetic value of their work.

Art has inspired and invigorated all aspects of my life: as a child, a friend, an elementary school teacher, an activist, an art museum educator, but primarily as a daughter. From a young age, my mother Nina would take me to shows, musicals and exhibitions in our hometown of Manhattan. She encouraged me to keep drawing at home when elementary school journals required “less illustrations and more words, please.” For a short stint in elementary school, I attended an Isadora Duncan dance/ballet school near Carnegie Hall. The teachers were kind enough to end that thundering period, for my sake as well as theirs, then moved me to a progressive, interpretive jazz dance class on the Upper West Side. I am immensely grateful in this age of social media that there are no photos commemorating that period. Think rainbow colors, sparkly leg warmers and purple tights.

Tickets to “The Nutcracker” at Lincoln Center were a winter holiday essential. George Balanchine, Patricia McBride, Rudolph Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Pavarotti and Leonard Bernstein were the only names that could lure our whole family to watch TV in unison. We saw “Les Miserables” twice in Manhattan and again in London, because who could see it once? During my senior year in high school we started purchasing our theater tickets exclusively from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. After college, she didn’t really mind when I got a Keith Haring tattoo on my ankle. In part because she knew I could wear pants or stockings to cover it up when necessary, but mostly because she understood why her straight, art-loving daughter was working in the Philadelphia LGBT community to fight AIDS and homophobia.

We walked through Central Park beneath “The Gates” to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to dine in the Trustee Dining Room, not so much for the food, but to see “The Gates” from above. We attended the Neue Gallerie upon its opening and wept in front of Klimt and Schiele. Whenever one of us would see an exhibit without the other, inevitably we left shlepping two copies of the hard cover exhibition catalogs. Those catalogues serve as an auto-biographical timeline of my obsession with different artists. Monet was my first obsession and love. Then Matisse and Chagall, followed by a brief period of infatuation with Lichtenstien, then Giacometti, Klee, Morandi, Georgia O’Keefe, Dora Marr and Francois Gilot, Jackson Pollack, Lee Krasner, Toulouse Lautrec, Keith Haring and Frida Kahlo.

At the top of the my list sits Van Gogh.

In the fall of 2003, I took a trip to the Netherlands and France, with an itinerary devoted to walking in Van Gogh’s footsteps. While others questioned me for choosing this as a dream vacation, only my mother could appreciate the rationale and spiritual implication for this itinerary. She understood my obsession, because she made the pilgrimage to the south of France herself several years earlier.

Time has taken a toll on my mother’s physical strength, but not her intellect, beauty or spirit. Even if we cannot attend performances and exhibits together, we still converse endlessly about the arts: the frustrating and rewarding process of creating; choices of subject matter, colors, medium and materials; exhibits; costumes; great actors and writers; paintings; couture fashion; and new discoveries about the old masters.

As a daughter, I can only make an assumption about which of my life experiences my mother holds in the highest regard. If I were to guess, it was the supreme moment of privilege I had in 2012. I was standing completely alone in a small gallery space with Van Gogh’s 1890 Almond Blossom painting. The Van Gogh Up Close exhibit had not yet opened to the public at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where I had been hired as a Museum Educator. It was a rare, private moment to be alone with an art world treasure. The painting was made with love, and perhaps hope, by Vincent for his brother Theo to celebrate the birth of Theo’s son, appropriately named Vincent. Like my mom, Theo was a loyal supporter of his brother’s artistic pursuits. Once more, I carried home two hard cover exhibition catalogs.

Part Two

In October of 2014, I was injured and sustained a fractured skull, a mild traumatic brain injury and PTSD. One day I was a confident, energetic, intellectual woman, an active teacher, thoughtful friend and endurance athlete, and in an instant I became a stranger in my own skin. I was incapable of functioning, fatigued, and limited by physical pain and cognitive symptoms that have since forced me to live in a quiet, carefully planned, slow-moving, small world. My neuro-optometric system, the frontal lobe, along with other neurological circuits, were impacted by a blow to my face, head and cervical spine. I lost my ability to multitask, to remember details, to organize, to navigate busy visual environments, to drive, to juggle the art of walking and talking at the same time, to follow multiple conversations in social situations and formulate coherent thoughts due to extreme cognitive fatigue.

Reading was impossible; television and computer screens were intolerable. Even following a story on a pod cast was exhausting. I slept for 12-14 hours a day and struggled with incredible migraines, nausea, balance issues, light sensitivity and tinnitus. I could thankfully sit and flip through pages from my collection of museum exhibition catalogs. Staring at the images of paintings brought me comfort and a connection to beauty.

Several months of vestibular therapy, neurofeedback and vision therapy passed, and I mastered the series of exercises prescribed by my treatment team. These therapies were initially exhausting and terribly painful. My first neuro-optometric doctor recommended doing the vision exercises with a blue vellum filter at bedtime, so that I could fall asleep immediately afterward. These exercises were tedious, induced headaches, fatigue and nausea, but were necessary for retraining my binocular focus, visual tracking and saccadic eye movements.

When I mastered the vision therapies, there were no additional levels of books available to challenge me and the doctor dismissed me as her patient. There was simply no more she could do for me. But none of these exercises could be applied to the real world. In the real world, your neuro-optometirc system works on a much larger scale and in much busier environments with a wide scope of external stimulation. Imagine what it takes for the brain to organize and process driving, grocery shopping, going out to eat with a group of friends in a loud restaurant, triathlon racing, teaching a group of 30 students, hosting a fundraiser, or attending a blockbuster museum exhibit?

Take the museum exhibit as one example. Such an activity includes tracking moving bodies, adjusting to a variety of lights and sounds, visually scanning and processing parts of a painting, judging your distance from a another person or group, navigating crowds while climbing stairs or riding escalators, walking and processing while listening to an audio, reading and processing the curators notes stenciled on the wall, comparing two or three paintings, and organizing your thoughts, reactions and memories about the art work, navigating the exhibit space for prime viewing without disturbing another visitor’s viewing.

Now add a friend! You might engage in quiet conversation, follow their eyes, contemplate their reactions and remarks, look back and forth at a piece of work while ignoring the people passing in front of you while your eyes dart back and forth to your companion. Our brains are sorting, processing, making connections and engaging all at once!

My initial vision therapies improved my abilities to the degree that I could start reading texts with large font, with the blue vellum shield for several minutes and then gradually longer periods. However, the training exercises I had mastered in the privacy of my home would never get me back to a museum or a classroom setting, and neither would the routine vestibular therapy exercise conducted in a quiet setting, with the guidance of support therapists.

One day at home while journaling it occurred to me: I could start drawing designs in my journals on a larger scale to mimic the vision therapy exercises to further retrain my eyes and strengthen new neuro-pathways. I began creating more difficult exercises by inventing drawings and what seemed at the time to be complicated designs. This is how my artistic medicine walk began. I moved my dusty drawing table to the dining room where there was extended daylight and began my own form of visual and emotional art therapy.

My doctors and therapists were quite surprised at the rate of progress my neuro-optometric system made on account of the drawing at home. The evidence lies in the progression of the complexity in the designs and colors I created. Once I reached a plateau where I could create something on my own without inducing symptoms, I incrementally added more details and colors to the designs and began posting them on Facebook. The led to more communication with the friends I missed seeing in person, and I began to ask them to give me “assignments” to create personalized illustrations.

Creating illustrations for my friends came very slowly, and required increased levels of executive functioning and therefore more rest and meditation during the process. I could only draw in very short spurts. My executive functioning skills were challenged by researching botanicals, sketching on graph paper to organize layouts, selecting colors, developing spatial relationships and patterns on the page. Intermittent meditation breaks and breathing exercises became part of the process to calm my aggravated symptoms. My brain was rewiring and its battery faded quickly with tasks that were once effortless.

The singular focus of drawing and meditating, in the quiet of my home, cultivated a connection with something intuitive and creative that surpassed the physical realm of bodily sensations. Drawing and meditating became an intentional distraction from the pain, especially the migraines associated with the brain injury. The art felt as though it was pouring out of me from a divine place and healing my broken heart. Creating art for my loved ones both calmed my overactive sympathetic nervous system and elevated my mood, much like meditation and prayer. Today I look at certain pieces and cannot believe they came from me.

I have attempted a few exhibits at the Philadelphia Museum of Art with help from patient and humorous friends. With the encouragement of another artist, I submitted my work to juried local shows at the Philadelphia Sketch Club. I was surprised and thrilled in the fall of 2016 and the spring of 2017, when two of my paintings were accepted into Phillustration8 and The Art of the Flower. Attending the reception of each show with friends was very humbling, and I only wish my mother was well enough to be there with me.


Several years ago, my mom left her beloved home in Manhattan to relocate to Philadelphia to be closer to her daughters and two grandchildren. Downsizing a lifetime in one residence requires making piles of what to keep, what to throw away and what to give away. Some time after her move to Philly, my mother brought me a thoughtfully packed tall, heavy box. Inside was her vast collection of member’s bulletins from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, acquired over more than two decades.

She had archived and packed my sketchbooks from elementary, middle and high school, as well as a six-foot long ink scroll illustration I made in high school depicting a diverse queue of people outside a NYC nightclub my friends and I frequented, aptly named The Underground. She always knew art was meant to be my path to happiness. This past Christmas, I gave my mom a framed print of one of the illustrations which helped me heal: the “Iris for Alex” illustration, made for my loving friend Alex. Mommy told me she can’t stop staring at it.

This story originally appeared on Lisa Katharina’s website and the title image is her artwork.

Originally published: September 4, 2018
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