Seizure Turns Artist Into 'Picasso'
Meet an artist who says a cluster of blood vessels pressing on part of her brain has unleashed creativity she never knew she had

Alison and Her Mom

Alison Silva was a struggling, self-taught artist in 2006 when she started having "weird" headaches that would come and go. 

"It was just excruciating," said Silva, 34. "And you just knew there was something wrong; your body is like 'go to the hospital.' And that's where everything would change."



Alison's Brain Scan

In December 2006, Silva, of North Bergen, N.J., was diagnosed with a cavernous malformation - or a tangle of blood vessels, located on the part of left temporal lobe of her brain where the memory and language are. 

Since a cavernous malformation is really a tangle of blood vessels, Silva's doctor said the concern is bleeding.

"Cavernous malformations are considered to be low pressure, so though they can bleed, they tend to bleed in small increments," said Dr. Steven Karceski, a neurologist at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York who has treated Silva. "Whereas something like an aneurysm - while it does bleed, it can tend to bleed in a more serious way."


Back View of Alison's MRI

The dark spot in the brain scan indicates bleeding, which causes headaches and seizures. The seizures can trigger hallucinations, which Silva believes caused her artwork to change ... for the better. 


Painting Before Brain Hemorrhage

"Before I found it (the cavernous malformation), when you see a lot of my earlier work, it was very simple," Silva said. "There wasn't a lot of clutter or detail. Now, a lot of the new stuff - it's just like every space in the canvas is cluttered with everything; like it has to be put out there."


"The Milk Virgin"

"I saw a really big change in my artwork after my diagnosis. A lot of the new stuff, it's just like every space in the canvas is cluttered with everything, like it has to be put out there," Silva said. "So I think it comes to a point where it's compulsive, like you have to get every detail."

Silva's artwork used to sell for hundreds of dollars, but now her new and improved artwork is fetching in the ballpark of $10,000.

Painting After Diagnosis

Doctors don't know what causes the sudden change in creativity when patients suffer from seizures or brain injury.

"We all have sort of an over-thinking process that we do when we write something. I can only imagine for Alison's case that when she's painting, she's constantly thinking and changing what she's doing," Karceski said. "Perhaps what this hemorrhage did was to eliminate or cut down that process to allow the creativity to come through in a richer, more complex way."

Painting "Dreamland Mural"

"I think creativity is something that requires probably billions of neurons to put together," Karceski said. "It probably involves many different brain areas, and all of these areas are working together to produce, whether it's writing, music, or in Alison's case; artwork."

"Dreamland Mural"

I'm inspired by just so many beautiful things," Silva said. "You know, a lot of the fairy tales, and things like 'Alice in Wonderland,' 'Star Crystal,' 'The Never Ending Story.' That really sparked and triggered different ideas. And once I started -- I saw a photo by Georgia O'Keefe, I became fascinated by her paintings. And when I first saw 'Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights,' that would change everything.

"When I opened the book up and saw that image of how he took life and death and like, all the, the channeling energies in that piece, had me explore and go deeper into the psyche, into my art as well."

Alison Painting

Karceski said doctors think malformations like Silva's are formed around birth or very early in a person's life, and it only becomes a problem when a problem is recognized.

"In Alison's case, it was the headaches, and some of the things that she was experiencing that brought her to a doctor, which led to the diagnosis," Karceski said." She was always, even before this happened, a very creative person, and shes aid that what occurred after the bleed was that her creativity took a different direction, and she felt that her creativity became richer and deeper." 

Painting Mural for a Friend

Silva said surgery to remove the malformation is an option, but not one she's seriously considering at this point. 

"It's still always a risk, and it's very scary," she said. "Some doctors say it could be a success. Other doctors say we shouldn't touch it because it can cause more serious damage, or it could cause more seizures, or blindness, or memory loss or stroke. But, I'm risking both ways."


Painting After Diagnosis

Because Silva decided against surgery, doctors have taken a "watch-and-wait" approach to monitor the abnormality over time.

"It was really a decision, and a very difficult one that Alison needed to make to consider surgery, which might interrupt the creative process," Karceski said.

New Painting in Progress

"I find the diagnosis as a gift," Silva said. "As Leonard Cohen said, 'There's a crack in everything and that's how light gets in.' And I think that's so beautiful to live by that. I just think it's so true, that there is hope, always."

Seizure Turns Artist Into 'Picasso'

Meet an artist who says a cluster of blood vessels pressing on part of her brain has unleashed creativity she never knew she had

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