Monday, August 18, 2008

Art Influenced by Migraines and Epilepsy

By Jim Chambliss

Art can serve as a visual dialog of what happens within one’s thoughts, feelings and perceptions. The pains, altered perceptions and emotional impacts of epilepsy and migraines are often difficult for others to understand. The physical core of the problems can’t be seen. Each of these neurological conditions is experienced by a minority of the population. It is inherently difficult for other people to relate to a problem that they can’t see and have not personally experienced. It is often said that, “a picture speaks more than a thousand words.” Thousands of images of the art of people with epilepsy and migraines are being collected in an ongoing study called “Sparks of Creativity: the influence of epilepsy and migraines in art.” This large collection, along with evidence-based research, will help produce a better understanding of the impacts of these neurological conditions in people’s lives. The study also probes into the possibility that epilepsy and migraines could, in fact, stimulate and enhance creative expression.

Some of the World’s most creative minds, such as that of Michelangelo, Vincent van Gogh, Lewis Carroll and Giorgio de Chirico, are thought to have been influenced by epilepsy and/or migraines. These artists are claimed by some to have had epilepsy while others speculate that they had migraines. There were no EEGs or brain scans available during their lives to affirm a neurological diagnosis. Perhaps the best way to evaluate which artists had epilepsy, migraines or both is founded upon comparisons to the art and the experiences of living artists.

The "Sparks of Creativity Study" does not advocate that epilepsy and migraines define an artist or serve as a direct cause for one’s creativity. However, these conditions are significant in the multitude of factors that make a person uniquely human and are part of the experiences that artists can draw from in the creative process. Study of the artistic expression of people with epilepsy and migraines can potentially shed new light on the personal feelings and thoughts of people that are often overlooked in traditional clinical research. It can hopefully help improve the understanding of epilepsy and migraines while reducing the unjust stigma associated with these conditions. The “Sparks of Creativity Study” and associated web site called “Channel Z Artworks” will serve as a window through which people may gain a better understanding of these human conditions. People can see the positive accomplishments of artists with epilepsy and migraines through viewing their creative expression. As more people come to understand epilepsy and migraines the associated stigma will be reduced.

There are numerous symptoms that are common in some types of partial seizures and migraines. One condition can sometimes trigger the other. Some people can have both epilepsy and migraines. Recently medical research has discovered a gene mutation that epilepsy and migraines sometimes have in common. There is a great deal to learn about how these two neurological conditions frequently co-exist, how they may be related and how they can be distinguished.

Examples of how epilepsy and migraines can influence art:

Seizure within the Mind by Andrew Schuler

(Echuca, Victoria, Australia)

Andrew Schuler depicts what he perceives within his mind’s eye of what others witness as he has a tonic-clonic seizure. The image of his convulsing body appears in front of a vibrant background that represents a print-out of his EEG measurement of a seizure. His art conveys his need to fill the gap when there is no memory of events during his generalized seizures.

Buzzing Sensation by Howard Smith

(Geelong, Victoria, Australia)

Howard Smith created a series of eight images of what happens during the progression of a complex-partial seizure. The sequence of his pastel drawings, collectively titled A Seizure, progresses from representation of the first subtle signs of the seizure auras, into “a black hole of consciousness”, then coming out of the seizure to a fairly normal state where he experiences questions and holes in his awareness of what happened. The “buzzing sensation” is an aura that sometimes precedes his seizures. His drawings allow others to sense and vicariously share in the experience of a complex-partial seizure. (Chambliss J. “Drawing from Epilepsy and Music: the artistic inspirations of Howard Smith,” Epilepsy Report, June 2007. This series is owned by and displayed at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital of Adelaide.)

Migraine by Briana Kenno

(Windber, PA, USA)

Migraines can be painful experiences that distort who a person is and what one perceives. This sculpture was done in a clay studie during a night when Briana Kenno had a sever migraine. This sculpture came out of her anger in relation to how migraines can ruin so many events in her life and how ugly a migraine can make her feel.

Multiple Realities by Denis Gagnon

(Winnipeg, Canada)

In the late 1900’s Dr. John Hughlings Jackson described partial seizures as the “dreamy state.” Denis Gagnon depicts a curious child who is observing a cartoon of the experiences of Alice in Wonderland, as if she is actively engaged in a dream. The stories of Lewis Carroll about the adventures of Alice are thought by many to be inspired by his personal experiences with seizures. The background is a blue room that is inspired by a painting of Vincent van Gogh, who is the artist most frequently mentioned to have had epilepsy.

Metamorphosis by Vicki Deutsch

(St. Paul, MN, USA)

The acrylic painting/digital image by Vicki Deutsch represents the evolving state of being that she experiences with epilepsy. Vicki commented that at the time of its creation, “I felt a new me emerging like the monarch caterpillar under the puppet’s foot, but at the same time I also felt manipulated by the doctors and the pills.”

Ambulatory EEG by Rachna Pettygrove

(Minneapolis, MN, USA)

Rachna Pettygrove’s pseudo-surrealistic painting of Ambulatory EEG depicts her disdain for the uncomfortable process of wearing the mechanical headgear that is used to measure brain waves over an extended period. (Citation: Gruca, Terry, “Is There a Link Between Epilepsy and Art?” WCCO <> December 4, 2006).

Assimilation Blues by Sylvia Huege de Serville

(Camira, QLD, Australia)

Sylvia Huege de Serville’s painting compassionately portrays the heart-wrenching exploits of the ‘stolen generation.’ She feels deeply about the plight of aboriginal children who were often used as free labour in the domestic servitude and ranch-hand field. Assimilation Blues won the 'People's Choice' Award in the 2003 Telstra Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award.

I See Lapses in Red by Patricia Bernard

(Capitola, CA, USA)

Patricia Bernard’s painting has activity, form and vivid colors that show the movement in her mind’s eye at that time of her experiences with seizures and migraines. Patricia states that when she is having these events her “perspective gets jumbled up” in her mind. Straight lines can become “mutated and uncontrollable.” The visual illusions distort her awareness of where she stands in space and of the colour that she sees in her inner world. Ms. Bernard’s intriguing depiction of her altered visual experiences allows viewers to enter a place that few can truly understand without a visual representation.

Laceration by Olea Nova

(Chicago, IL, USA)

Laceration was inspired by a conversation that I had with Olea Nova. I told her about how some of my headaches occasionally occured during several years following a brain injury. They were like a sudden unexpected jolt of pain as if someone drove a sharp stake down the middle of my head.
The theme of much, if not most, of the art of people with epilepsy and migraines is not directly related to these neurological experiences. Many of the participants in this study were asked why they would want to exhibit their art while disclosing that they have epilepsy and/or migraines. The vast majority responded with a central theme that they wanted to be understood. Hopefully, this study and web site can help to accomplish improved understanding, acceptance and appreciation of people who are slightly different.

If you wish to learn more about the influence of epilepsy in art or to participate in this research please see our web site at You can also contact Jim Chambliss by mobile phone in Australia at 0430 043 400 or by e-mail at

Art of People with Epilepsy and Migraines

Books and Web Sites Featuring the Art of People with Migraine & Epilepsy

The following is a list of book titles and web sites that feature the art of people with epilepsy and/or migraines.


Visions: Artists Living with Epilepsy, edited by Dr. Steven Schachter

Migraine Expressions: A Creative Journey through Life with Migraine,
edited by Betsy Blondin

Web Sites:

American Headache Society

Creative Minds Raising Epilepsy Awarness from the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota

Desitin: Art and Epilepsy

Discover Health - Migraine Art Gallery, Gallery of Visual Art

Expression of Courage: Art by People with Epilepsy

Freedom in Mind Art Gallery

From the Storm: Artists with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy

German Epilepsy Museum in Kork

Migraine Action Association Art Gallery

Migraine Art by Olea Nova

Migraine Aura Association

Migraine Masterpieces Gallery of 2003

Migraine Masterpieces Gallery of 2001

Migraine Masterpieces Gallery of 1998

National Arts and Disability Center

National Headache Foundation Migraine Art Gallery

NY Times Migraine: Perspectives on a Headache, Migraine Aura Art

Ronda’s Migraine Page

The images to the right are from the books Visions: Artists Living with Epilepsy and Migraine Expressions: A Creative Journey through Life with Migraine.

Biography of Jim Chambliss

I, Jim Chambliss, am a reformed attorney who is successfully rebounding from traumatic brain injury in 1998 that led to temporolimbic epilepsy (TLE), migraines and temporary cognitive damage. I am currently a 44-year old PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne in a dual PhD program that combines creative art and medicine. The study that I am doing, in cooperation with the University of Melbourne, St. Vincent’s Health, the Epilepsy Foundation of Victoria and other medical service organisations is called “Sparks of Creativity: The Influence of Epilepsy and Migraines in Art." The inspiration for this research came from a personal metamorphosis in a series of life-changing events after the injury that opened the door to a new life and undiscovered artistic ability. My quest to understand what happened to my brain after the injury has led to some interesting discoveries and revelations. As a result of my experiences stemming from the brain injury I am now more genuinely and compassionately focused on helping other people in similar circumstances.

I had a brain injury in the summer of 1998. Afterwards strange things were happening to me like having false sensations of smells that were like something rotten was burning, losing track of what I was doing, going blank while talking to people, getting lost in familiar places, having quick jerks of my hand and developing unusual writing habits. In non-scientific terms I was “feeling out of it” and had trouble focusing. I did not recognize that I was having complex-partial seizures. I thought of seizures as only the tonic clonic version of falling and shaking. Three months after the brain injury, that was originally thought to be only a “minor concussion,” I had a tonic seizure at a Christmas party. Numerous people from the party described that I stiffened and fell like a tree. I hit flat on my face on a hardwood floor. I have neither memory of the event nor the ambulance ride to the hospital. Maybe it is best that I cannot recall the first 10 hours or so that I was in intensive care. I woke with more pain than I can fully convey. I was wearing a neck-brace, heart monitor and tubes going into my body. My nose was broken in two places and some of my teeth were cracked. I had three face lacerations and an eye that was swollen shut. A friend of mine, who was a nurse at the hospital, could not recognize my face.

For several years I had migraines and headaches that were viciously painful and disorienting. So many weird things were happening to me that are hard to distinguish as being caused by epilepsy, migraines or a combination of both. Damage to my left hemisphere impacted on functions such as reading, writing, numerical calculations, listing and those things associated with mental efficiency. Frontal lobe damage led to an executive dysfunction with trouble remembering, making wise choices and keeping track of things. It took me years to recover from the cognitive damage from these serious brain injuries. The practice of law became too complicated and too unforgiving of mistakes for me to continue to be competitive at that time. However, I remain a licensed attorney in good-standing. During the recovery process and resulting medical expenses I lost most everything I had of monetary value. This was most unexpected, frustrating and humbling for a formally cocky attorney.

Pursuant to conservative medical management I was not put on antiepileptic medication until I blacked out and wrecked my car! I couldn’t drive for more than five years until medication, and my ability to remember to take the medicine, successfully brought the seizures under control.

In spite of my challenges I refused to become a person who continued to focus on the negative or dwell on what life could have been without the dramatic changes. Subsequent to the brain injury, I discovered a talent for art when I was playing around with a block of Styrofoam one day while working as a substitute teacher. I carved a salamander from memories of my childhood that impressed the students and the faculty at the high school. I had no artistic training or recognized creative talent before my brain injuries and the resulting seizures. Subsequently, my art has won numerous awards and has been published on multiple occasions. I was very fortunate to have the advice of an outstanding and caring neuropsychologist named Dr. Steven Schmidt. He recognized what I could do best and helped me focus on the positive potential I had for art.

Over the years the reserve brain cells seemed to slowly work through the training process to compensate for the damage. I regained most of my cognitive and academic skills to a point of having even more success in school than prior to my injuries. I graduated in 2005 at the University of Louisville in the USA with a Masters in Visual Art. I received a prestigious International Postgraduate Research Scholarship to the University of Melbourne. I read a statement in the book A Purpose Driven Life to the effect that ‘your most effective mission will come out of your deepest hurts.’ I genuinely believe that I can achieve more socially beneficial goals as a researcher, teacher and advocate, specializing in interdisciplinary studies involving the medical and psychological influences in creativity than in my prior career path.

Many people with epilepsy, migraines, brain injuries and other chronic medical conditions are misdiagnosed and misunderstood. While most attention, regarding neurological impairment, focuses on the negative aspects, my current research investigates the positive accomplishments in artistic expression by people with epilepsy and migraines. There can be a productive side to the electrical mischief that epilepsy and migraines produce, through enhanced creativity. This phenomenon is not contained within the boundaries of what is normal, expected and predictable. Some types of epilepsy and migraines can spark inspiration, enhance creative functions and lead some people to produce art that is of such novelty and value as to change the course of mainstream thought, production and appreciation.

Some of the World’s most creative minds are thought to have been influenced by epilepsy, such as Michelangelo, Vincent van Gogh and Lewis Carroll. There were no EEGs or brain scans available during their lives to affirm a diagnosis of epilepsy. One of my goals for the research that I am doing in association with the University of Melbourne, St. Vincent’s Health, the Epilepsy Foundation of Victoria and others is that it will serve as a foundation to evaluate whether past artists had epilepsy and/or migraines based on comparisons with the artwork and writing of living artists.

You can contact me by e-mail at

Participant Invitation

We are conducting a study called “Sparks of Creativity: The Influence of Epilepsy and Migraines in Art.” This research will evaluate how epilepsy and migraines can influence the creation of visual art. This study makes an objective evaluation of whether epilepsy and migraines can, in some circumstances, stimulate and enhance creativity. This research will help to better understand the creative process and how epilepsy and migraines impact the lives of people. Some of the World’s most creative minds are thought to have been influenced by epilepsy and/or migraines, such as Michelangelo, Lewis Carroll, Vincent van Gogh and Giorgio de Chirico. There were no modern EEGs or brain scans during their lives to affirm a neurological diagnosis. This research will serve as a foundation to evaluate whether artists had epilepsy based on comparisons with the artwork and writing of living artists who are confirmed to have epilepsy and/or migraines by modern methods of diagnosis.

We are inviting artists, by hobby or by trade, who are 18 or older and can communicate in English to participate in this international study. We are also inviting family members of artists with epilepsy and/or migraines and artists with other medical conditions to participate as part of important groups for comparison. Family members do not need to be artists in order to be highly valuable contributors to this study.

This is an interdisciplinary study conducted by the University of Melbourne and St. Vincent’s Health. This research is part of a PhD thesis of Jim Chambliss for a dual degree in creative arts and medicine. Dr. Mark Cook of St. Vincent’s Health and the University of Melbourne, School of Medicine is a principle researcher in this study. Dr. Barbara Bolt of the Victoria College of Art, University of Melbourne and Dr. David Williams of the University of Melbourne, School of Physiology are supervisors of Jim Chambliss and co-researchers. Dr. Jaya Pinikahana of the Epilepsy Foundation of Victoria is also a co-researcher.

There are three stages in this study. Stage 1 is an anonymous review of two brief drawings, a written summary about one’s artistic influences and the review of 10 images of existing artwork. Stage 2 involves the completion of a survey and interviews for a more personal understanding of the art, medical conditions and lives of selected participants. Stage 3 will include one or more art exhibitions and publications. Participants in the comparison groups of family members and artists with other medical conditions are only asked to complete parts of the study that are relative, according to their experiences with epilepsy or migraines and whether they are artists. There is no obligation to participate in Stages 2 or 3 after completing Stage 1. Participants can withdraw from the study at any time. Participants can remain anonymous. Participants have an opportunity to display their art, while retaining ownership and copyright interests.

If you wish to participate in the study or know of people who may be interested then please contact Jim Chambliss at or see our web site at

The ethics approval numbers are HREC-A 044/06 for St. Vincent’s Health and 060351X2 for the University of Melbourne.

Comments about Sparks of Creativity:

Betsy Blondin, Editor, Migraine Expressions

“Throughout my nearly 40-year migraine journey, the most helpful milestones have been discovering artwork, reading migraine articles and books, and sharing the complexities of this disease by reading about and discussing experiences with others. In fact, a real epiphany years ago for me was happening upon a Smithsonian magazine article about migraine that included artwork. I still carry those images in my head because it was the first time I could truly “see” what I had and connect with others like me. My mother has five daughters, three of whom have migraine, and the first thing she said about the images and words in Migraine Expressions was how absolutely “flabbergasted” she was to finally grasp what her daughters had been trying to describe all these years.

That’s why I find the "Sparks of Creativity Study" about epilepsy, migraine and the visual arts so critical and fascinating. It’s a shared desire for awareness and understanding by people without migraine or epilepsy and for understanding what is happening within ourselves and what I call our “brain glitches.” Many migraineurs have described to me a surge of creativity or hyper brain activity they experience before or during a migraine, which may actually be there all the time! Jim’s story is amazing and I hope you will contribute to his important work.”