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Conference Calls: what goes on in an artist's brain?

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Artists are like race car drivers--although they're praised for their skill, their performance is largely determined by what goes on under the hood of the automobile. And for artists, this is an area almost no one understands.

A three-day symposium at the Art Institute will take a look under the hood of artistic creativity, at the most complex engine in the universe--the human brain. The goal is to combine information from several disciplines into a picture of how the brain generates creative thought.

"If you can figure out the physiological bases of human potential, then you can figure out many things--like how to tap into that potential," said Andrea Gellin Shindler, the organizer of "Art and the Brain," which will bring together two dozen experts in art history, psychology, neurology, and other areas.

Shindler, a speech pathologist, has been thinking about the brain's role in creativity for more than a decade, ever since she began working with a 20-year-old woman named Carol Frankel, whose brain bad been badly damaged by a cerebral hemorrhage. The blood vessel burst in the brain's left hemisphere, where the rational, logical abilities are located. Her speech was destroyed, the right side of her body severely weakened.

But as she recovered, something surprising happened. Although the young woman had never before exhibited any artistic ability, she suddenly developed an impressive talent for painting. After a few lessons, she began to produce landscapes and seascapes, and even three sophisticated portraits--all with her left hand (she had been right-handed).

Shindler suspected that the damage to the woman's left hemisphere had forced her to exercise the right hemisphere, which controls the more intuitive, creative faculties.

"When she couldn't communicate through speech, she developed this ability to communicate through painting," Shindler said. "Was something in the right hemisphere disinhibited by the stroke? Is there an inverse relationship between language ability and other forms of creative communication?"

Such questions nagged at Shindler. She showed the young woman's paintings to Dr. Daniel Hier, chairman of the neurology department at Michael Reese Hospital (where Shindler also works). He was impressed by Frankel's work, so Shindler consulted with Howard Gardner, a professor of education at Harvard University whose book The Shattered Mind uses case studies of brain-injured people as a way of locating the sites of specific brain functions. The three of them decided that a symposium would be the best way of surveying all the information linking brain function to the creation of art.

Shindler began recruiting experts from around the country Gardner agreed to speak about his controversial theory--that we all possess multiple intelligences that determine our aptitude for music, math, athletics, and so on. Dr. Hier, a neurologist, will offer a crash course in "How the Brain Works."

Many other speakers promise insights into the brain. Don Seiden, an artist and art therapist at the School of the Art Institute, will offer "an artist's introspection" on how the brain works. Art historian Susan Taylor will discuss Jackson Pollock, whose innovative paintings may have been influenced by alcohol-induced brain damage. Betty Edwards, author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, will explain her technique for gaining access to the mind's creative, intuitive abilities. Anthropologist L.G. Freeman of the University of Chicago will speculate on what prehistoric art can tell us about the evolution of the human brain. Nancy Andreasen, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa, will discuss the incidence of manic depression among artists, while art historian Mary Mathews Gedo will speak on "The Healing Power of Art: Goya as His Own Physician."

More than a dozen other scientists and scholars will also speak. All wish to achieve nothing less than "the union of the material and the nonmaterial worlds," as Don Seiden describes it. "In a way, this is bringing the left and the right hemispheres of the brain together."

"Art and the Brain" begins at 9 AM Thursday, May 12, in the Arthur Rubloff Auditorium in the Art Institute. An art exhibit, featuring the work of Carol Frankel and other artists who have suffered brain damage, will be held simultaneously in the Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room near the auditorium. The cost of the three-day symposium is $150, or $75 for medical residents, students, and senior citizens. Registration begins at 7:45 AM on May 12 just outside the auditorium. Lunch is available for $10 on May 12 and 13.

The symposium is jointly sponsored by the neurology department of Michael Reese Hospital & Medical Center and by the Department of Art Education and Art Therapy of the School of the Art Institute. To register and for more information, call 791-4481.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Sundlof.

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