Lonni Sue Johnson spends every spare moment creating word puzzles superimposed on elaborate grids. The moment she puts one down, she starts on the next. In not quite three years, she has amassed a stack of paper that is 15 feet high.
Family member say that's how she pins down time.
"In order to grasp the present moment before it vanishes from her memory, Lonni Sue urgently writes and draws," says her sister, Aline Johnson. "As she works on her puzzles, her thoughts — which would otherwise be constantly slipping away — are held on the page, where she can build ideas. We can watch the shifts in her mental ability and see creative ideas unfolding."
Aline Johnson is co-curating "Puzzles of the Brain: An Artist's Journey Through Amnesia," a show of her sister's drawings that opens this Saturday at the Walters Art Museum.
The exhibit showcases the works of Lonni Sue Johnson, who was a successful illustrator before she contracted encephalitis in December 2007, suffering extensive brain damage.
The 36 items in the exhibit include drawings that Johnson, now 61, made before and after her memory was destroyed, along with documents from a continuing case study undertaken by a Johns Hopkins University team led by neuroscientist Barbara Landau.
The exhibit also poses intriguing questions about the nature and source of artistic ability. When Johnson was at her prime, her drawings graced the cover of The New Yorker magazine half a dozen times and are in the Smithsonian's permanent collection. After Johnson suffered profound amnesia, many of her abilities disappeared overnight. But other skills survived intact: the artist's playfulness, her fondness for puns and her skill at composing recognizable images.
"Lonni Sue's work always had a kind of whimsy to it," says her mother, Margaret Kendall Johnson, herself a well-known visual artist. "She loved wordplay, and her work was known for its sense of humor. Her illustrations don't have the same quality they did before, but her personality is still there."
"Puzzles of the Brain" is the second of three exhibits planned at the Walters that explore how the human brain processes artistic works.
The first exhibit, "Beauty and the Brain," debuted in January 2010 and helped gather data for a study on whether humans have an innate preference for some visual forms. The third exhibit, "Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture," will open in January and explore how the brain reacts to tactile stimuli.
"These exhibits are based on scientific research that poses huge questions about how the brain works," Walters director Gary Vikan says. "If we, as a museum, can give broader exposure to these ideas, it might change in a tiny way how the public thinks about the interaction between art and science."
In 2007, Lonni Sue Johnson was living on a 165-acre farm in upstate New York with a landing strip for her own plane. Several cats kept her company while she drew, and in her spare time, she played her viola with a local music group.
Just before the new year, a neighbor noticed that she was behaving strangely. Coffee grounds were scattered all over Johnson's kitchen floor. A pair of spectacles rested in a flower pot.
The neighbor drove Johnson to a nearby hospital, where she was diagnosed with encephalitis, a rare viral infection that targets and destroys selected parts of the brain. An MRI revealed extensive damage to Johnson's left temporal lobe and hippocampus, which helps to form, sort and store memories, according to Hopkins neuroscientist Michael McCloskey.
"Lonni Sue almost died," McCloskey says. "When she first started to recover, she couldn't walk, she couldn't talk and she couldn't put pencil to paper."
Gradually, she relearned many skills with the help of her mother and sister. Aline and Margaret Johnson devised the games that first helped Lonni Sue nudge her pencil across the page. For example, Margaret Johnson would sketch a wiggly line on a sheet of paper and say, "Finish the drawing."
Lonni Sue responded with a three-dimensional study of cats interacting with one another much like real-life felines.
"Her mother and sister might not be trained as art therapists, but they did all the right things," McCloskey says. "Lonni Sue wouldn't have come as far as she has without their support."
Nearly four years after becoming ill, Lonni Sue Johnson exhibits a mix of strengths and deficits that can bewilder those around her.
"Lonni Sue can play the Bach suites almost as well as she did before," Margaret Johnson says. "One night after she had put her instrument away, I said, 'How wonderful to hear you on the viola again!'
"And she said, 'Oh, did I play?'"
Johnson can't remember that she was once married for 10 years, but she is capable of discussing abstract concepts. For instance, this is how she described to McCloskey the experience of guiding an airplane: "Flying is like dancing in the sky."
She can't identify U.S. landmarks or such iconic paintings as the "Mona Lisa." And yet she instantly recognizes her own artwork, whether it was drawn the previous day or before she fell ill.
A turning point occurred when Aline Johnson gave her sister a book of word puzzles in which recognizable words are hidden among a group of random letters. Lonni Sue Johnson was fascinated with the graphs and began to work them nonstop.
After temporarily running out of existing puzzles to solve, she began to create her own grids, several of which are on display at the Walters. Early grids contain just words grouped around a theme, such as foods beginning with the same letter. But in later grids, Johnson's thoughts become increasingly visual and abstract.
For instance, above a grid titled "Exaggeration," a horse capers, his Rapunzel-length tail a mixture of rainbow hues.
"Even though Lonni Sue Johnson is deeply amnesic and cannot remember much of her pre-illness life or even events that occur during a normal day, she is still fiercely creative," researcher Landau says. "Her work shines through, is as clever as ever, is complex and multifaceted, and always innovative."
Ideas and memories for Johnson may be elusive, buzzing things, but she isn't about to let them fly away. She's determined to wrestle them into submission, to tack them into place with her pencil on a blueprint made from paper.
Isn't that what all artists do?
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