NEWS RELEASE, 10/13/99
Despite a debilitating stroke that paralyzed her right hand, UC Berkeley professor produces award-winning art
By Kathleen Maclay Public Affairs
BERKELEY-- Two years ago, a stroke partially paralyzed artist Katherine Sherwood, threatening her profession and passion.
But after teaching herself to paint left-handed, the University of California, Berkeley, associate professor of art now is producing award-winning work. And many of the paintings are based on medical images of her own brain.
"It's been since the stroke that the floodgates have opened," said Sherwood's colleague and friend Wendy Sussman, also an associate professor in UC Berkeley's Art Practice Department. "It's totally obvious that she's doing her best work."
Sussman raved about Sherwood's sense of color and a "lightness of being" exhibited in paintings that link such themes as medicine, science, and even the Central Intelligence Agency with medieval symbolism.
Last summer, the San Francisco Art Institute recognized Sherwood with the 1999 Adaline Kent Award. The prize goes annually to a "talented, promising and deserving California artist." Along with it, Sherwood earned an honorarium and a one-month show at the art institute. Her paintings there included medical images of the winding blood vessels in her brain and medieval emblems thought to ensure health, wealth and wisdom.
Today, in Sherwood's UC Berkeley office, one of those post-stroke paintings hangs in jarring juxtaposition to an earlier piece that is oddly related in theme.
The 1998 painting illustrates the inside of Sherwood's own brain. The other, done seven years before, contains wood cuts and photo lithographs made from the raw images produced by electronic microscope exams of other people's brains.
Sherwood also once produced a piece called "642 Hurt" that focused on UC Berkeley's athletic training room, where student players go, in part, for treatment of injuries. She had even helped curate a 15-artist show about "The Big Game" and said she was the only person to focus on the training room.
"It was almost like she had seen ahead and was preparing herself for this," said Yauger Williams, one of Sherwood's former students.
Sherwood's father died of a brain aneurysm at the age of 33, but she said her doctors advised her against concern of a similar attack. "I never spent one day in my life worrying about having a stroke," she said.
With an impish grin and eyes sparkling behind oversized, stylish black-rimmed glasses, Sherwood, 46, can only conclude that "my life caught up with my art. I like that it's happening that way."
"It was really in her work before the stroke," said Sussman. "But it (the stroke) brought it out and made it more personal."
The stroke - the kind Sherwood said typically kills 60 percent of those it strikes - occurred one May day in 1997 when Sherwood was helping with a graduate student critique at UC Berkeley's Kroeber Hall. Within two minutes, she was paralyzed on her right side, her speech impaired. Six weeks of hospitalization and many months of rehabilitation and physical therapy followed.
Unable to immediately return to work, Sherwood looked for financial help and found it. The Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation allocates some of its emergency funds for artists, and the Pollack-Krasner Foundation also contributed to assist her with living and working expenses for a year. Friends and colleagues provided moral support.
"I was just so naive, and I knew nothing about strokes," Sherwood said, adding that the medications made her euphoric. "And I was so overwhelmed at how lucky I was to be alive, nothing bothered me at all."
Stroke strikes more than half a million Americans every year and kills about 150,000. It is the leading cause of adult disability and the third leading cause of death, behind coronary heart disease and cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic and Baylor/Methodist Stroke Center.
When she finally returned to the studio, Sherwood began working with her left hand and "I saw my path clearly," she said.
Upon her return from the hospital, Sherwood spent an hour trying to enter her house in Rodeo, Calif. Her other choice would have been to remove her favorite lilac tree and build a wheelchair ramp. She also admitted that, for a year after her accident, she continued to believe she eventually would regain use of her right hand.
Sherwood uses her former bed, now too high for her, as the platform for large canvases she once painted from a seat on the floor. She works from a rolling chair on wheels.
"This has been no minor struggle," said Mary Lovelace O'Neal, chair of the UC Berkeley Art Practice Department.
Knowing she must resume painting and, ultimately, teach again, Sherwin began to tackle the physical aspects of her profession - this time with her left hand. She started with unfinished paintings, caring most about simply completing them.
"It didn't even matter what they looked like," she said.
But Sherwood also began incorporating her own X-rays, or angiograms, into her paintings.
Her fascination with pictures of her brain was immediate.
After several MRIs and other tests following her stroke, Sherwood underwent one more that would tell doctors how much her brain had healed and about potential problems. She remembers clearly the catheter inserted in her hip and pushed all the way to her neck, the warm rush in her head when a dye was inserted into her blood, the periodic flash of light as a two-foot camera circled her head and snapped photos.
Her doctor placed the test results on a video screen for Sherwood as she recovered from the procedure.
"Right away, I just loved them, and when I asked for them, the doctors and technicians looked at me like I was crazy," Sherwood said. The collections of thread-like blood vessels resemble, to her, trees in landscape paintings from the Sung Dynasty, about 1,000 A.D.
Her paintings exhibited as part of the Adaline Kent Award all contain pieces of Sherwood's cerebral angiograms, cut and reassembled. Borrowing from a theme she first focused on in 1994, Sherwood also added several King Solomon seals, particularly the emblems associated with health and healing.
"They are uncanny, they are brilliant," said Sussman, advising that Sherwood's latest work is a strong and joyful expression of a knowledge deep inside her.
A year after the stroke and following a show at Gallery Paule Anglim, an art dealer asked Sherwood how it felt to be impaired and yet doing her best work. At first, she felt insulted.
But, Sherwood said that, while her stroke may have erased some skills, it led her to learn new ones, such as a new objectivity about her work. Her right hand may have been more controlled, but her left hand provides her with "a freer painting hand." She can see it clearly in her work.
"Her work now is a lot more fluid, which may seem strange," said O'Neal. "I find it more fluid, and it tends not to jump around, it just seems really focused. It almost seems to be how she has to use her energy...leaving enough room to explore, but there is less hesitation."
Sherwood returned to teaching this fall, much to the delight of Christiane Lyons, 21, a fourth-year art major from Mill Valley. When Lyons was contemplating where to attend college, she met Sherwood and knew. She took a class with Sherwood four years ago and has one this year.
"I think she really challenges her students to question our work and to help us find our own voice," Lyons said. "You know you're working with the real deal."
After the art institute show, Sherwood was invited to design a rug as part of a Matthew Brown studio project in Oaxaca, Mexico, which will tour that country next year. Others in the show are noted New York artists Kiki Smith, Pat Steir and Nichole Eissaman.
She also is preparing for two shows in New York in the spring.
Sherwood isn't sure where else her future may bring, but she's happy with the present. She's married to painter Jeff Adams, and together they are the parents of six-year-old daughter Odette. She's teaching, she's painting, she is represented by Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco.
"I never appreciated how therapeutic art could be until I went through this experience," Sherwood said. "This is my far the most effective occupational therapy I underwent."
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