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Art Without Memory

September 21, 2011

“If we think that art and creativity have to be rooted in what we know about ourselves or what we remember about ourselves,” says Johns Hopkins researcher Barbara Landau, “that clearly is not the case.” Amen to that.

I have what I consider a moderate memory loss. It’s not profound—I know who I am, where I come from, the names of the people who populate my history and present. But it’s not minor: I recall just two events from my entire prepubescent childhood. And both of those events, quite frankly, sucked. (I’ve tired of using the word “traumatic.” I’ll come back around.) Of course they sucked. That’s why I can remember only them and nothing else.

When I started writing regularly, I was perplexed. Everything I wrote seemed to connect to my lost past. I couldn’t follow the threads, either. They disappeared. But the lost past was there on the page nonetheless. Sneaky.

Deciding to aggressively pursue my lost past, and write about it, didn’t come easily. In writing workshops and craft lectures, I was saturated with the Commandments of Great Writing, including to draw on memory: episodic, sensory, etc. I just didn’t have faith that I could write about something I couldn’t remember, since memory seemed a vital writing artery.

But I did write about something I couldn’t remember. I wrote about it a lot.

A few days back I came across this article about an artist named Lonni Sue Johnson whose hippocampus was permanently damaged by encephalitis nearly four years ago. “Ravaged” is the word chosen by journalist John Pancake of the Post. Like all who suffer such memory loss (indeed, profound loss), Lonni Sue had to relearn the basics (walking, eating). Her mother, however, wasn’t satisfied with her daughter’s progress back to bare-bones functioning. She wanted Lonni Sue to draw again. And with prompting, Lonni Sue did, creating detailed grids born of vocabulary and enhanced by drawings.

Why vocabulary first? That’s what has the attention of Barbara Landau and Michael McCloskey at Johns Hopkins. (Landau went to school with Lonni Sue.) They wonder … if the root of Lonnie Sue’s art is now words, what does that say about the nature of creativity? About the parts of the brain responsible for art? About how words and pictures might be linked, separated, and linked again? McCloskey says in the video, “I think if we were to make a map of the brain and show what parts of the brain were important for art, it would be pretty much the whole brain.”

Without the ability to form new memories, Lonni Sue lives in the present tense. “She is rarely without her worn dictionary and a 4-inch stack of white typing paper, often stopping to capture a fleeting thought on a page before it flies away.” Though born of tragic necessity, that’s a lesson for us all, isn’t it? Capture thoughts, craft them into art, before they fly from us, irretrievable.

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  1. Kate permalink

    Hey beautiful,

    Have you read ‘My Stroke of Insight’? It reminds me of this post. Hope you’re doing well! Kate


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