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