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A Painter Reinvents Herself
Art Professor Katherine Sherwood's Stroke Forced Her to Learn to Paint Left-handed

By Kathleen Maclay, Public Affairs
Posted October 13, 1999

Photo: Katherine Sherwood

Katherine Sherwood. Peg Skorpinski photo.

A stroke partially paralyzed Katherine Sherwood, threatening the artist-professor's profession and passion. But after teaching herself to paint left-handed, she's producing award-winning work.

"It's been since the stroke that the floodgates have opened," colleague and friend Wendy Sussman of the Art Practice Department said about Sherwood's work since 1997. She raved about Sherwood's sense of color and a "lightness of being" exhibited in paintings that link such themes as medicine, science, and even the CIA, with medieval symbolism.

"It's totally obvious that she's doing her best work," Sussman said.

Last summer, the San Francisco Art Institute recognized Sherwood, an associate professor of art, with the 1999 Adaline Kent Award. The prize goes annually to a "talented, promising and deserving California artist." Sherwood along with it earned an honorarium and one-month show at the Art Institute. Her paintings included medical images of the winding blood vessels in her brain and medieval emblems said to ensure health, wealth and wisdom.

Today one of those post-stroke paintings hangs in Sherwood's Berkeley office, in jarring juxtaposition to an earlier piece oddly related in theme.

The 1998 painting illustrates the inside of Sherwood's own brain. The other, done seven years before, contains wood cuts and "photo-lithographs" made from the raw images from electronic microscope exams of other people's brains.

Again, it was just art when she prepared a piece called "642 Hurt" on Berkeley's training room, where student athletes go in part for treatment of injuries. It was part of "The Big Game" show of Art Practice Department artists she helped curate in 1997 with now graduate student Yauger Williams, 25, of Seattle. Yauger said she was the only one of 15 artists in the show to key on the training room.

"It was almost like she had seen ahead and was preparing herself for this," said Williams.

Sherwood's father died of a brain aneurysm at age 33, but she said her doctors had advised her against concern of a similar attack. "I never spent one day in my life worrying about having a stroke," she said.

With an impish grin and eyes sparkling behind over-sized, stylish black-rimmed glasses, Sherwood concluded: "The only thing was that my life caught up with my art...I like that it's happening that way."

"It was really in her work before the stroke," said Sussman. "But (the stroke) brought it out and made it more personal."

One May day in 1997, Sherwood was helping with a graduate student critique at Kroeber Hall when she had a stroke. Within two minutes, she was paralyzed on her right side, her speech impaired. Six weeks of hospitalization and many months of rehabilitation and physical therapy followed.

Stroke strikes more than half a million Americans every year and kills 150,000. It is the leading cause of adult disability, and the third leading cause of death.

When she finally returned to the studio, Sherwood began working with her left hand. "It wasn't easy, but once I got in (the studio), I saw my path clearly."

Yet at times, the path wasn't easy.

Sherwood spent an hour maneuvering into her house in Rodeo, Calif., when coming home from the hospital. Her other choice was remove her favorite lilac tree to make room for a wheelchair ramp. She also admitted that for a year after her accident, she continued to believe that she would eventually regain use of her right hand.

Sherwood uses her former bed, now too high for her, as the platform for large canvases she once painted from a seat on the floor. She works from a rolling chair on wheels.

Sherwood met the required professional challenges. She tackled unfinished paintings, caring most about simply completing them. "It didn't even matter what they looked like." She said she knew she had to resume painting and ultimately resume teaching.

Shortly after getting back into the studio, Sherwood began incorporating the X-rays, or angiograms, into her paintings.

Her fascination with pictures of her brain was immediate. After several MRI's and other tests following her stroke, Sherwood underwent one more that would tell doctors how much her brain had healed and about potential problems.

Her doctor placed the test results on a video screen for Sherwood as she recovered from the procedure.

"Right away I just loved them, and when I asked for them, the doctors and technicians looked at me like I was crazy," Sherwood said. The collections of thread-like blood vessels resemble, to her, trees in landscape paintings from the Sung Dynasty, about 1000 A.D.

Her paintings exhibited as part of the Adaline Kent Award all contain pieces of the cerebral angiograms, cut and re-assembled. Borrowing from a theme she first focused on in 1994, Sherwood also added several King Solomon seals, particularly the emblems associated with health and healing.

"They are uncanny, they are brilliant," said Sussman, advising that Sherwood's latest work is a strong and joyful expression of a knowledge deep inside her.

A year after the stroke and following a show at Gallery Paule Anglim, an art dealer asked her how it felt to be impaired and yet doing her best work. At first, she felt insulted.

But, Sherwood said, while her stroke may have erased some skills, it led her to learn new ones, such as a new objectivity about her work. Her right hand may have been more controlled, but her left hand provides her with "a freer painting hand." She can see it clearly in her work.

"Her work now is a lot more fluid, which may seem strange," said O'Neal. "I find it more fluid, and it tends not to jump around, it just seems really focused. It almost seems to be how she has to use her energy...leaving enough room to explore, but there is less hesitation."

Sherwood returned to teaching this fall, much to the delight of Christiane Lyons, 21, a fourth-year art major from Mill Valley. When Lyons was contemplating where to attend college, she met Sherwood and knew. She took a class with Sherwood four years ago, and has one this year.

"I think she really challenges her students to question our work and to help us find our own voice," Lyons said, calling Sherwood a consummate teacher and artist. "You know you're working with the real deal."

After the Art Institute show, Sherwood was invited to design a rug as part of a Matthew Brown studio project in Oaxaca, Mexico, which will tour that country next year. Others in the show are noted New York artists Kiki Smith, Pat Steir and Nichole Eissaman.

She also is preparing for two shows in New York in the spring.

She isn't sure where else her future may lead, but she's happy with the present. She's married to painter Jeff Adams and together they are the parents of 6-year-old daughter Odette. She's teaching and painting, and she is represented by Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco.

"I never appreciated how therapeutic art could be until I went through this experience," Sherwood said. "This is my far the most effective occupational therapy I underwent."


October 13 - 19, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 10)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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