TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
After a brain hemorrhage and stroke, my guest, Jon Sarkin, was transformed. He had been a kind of quiet chiropractor, husband and father. After the stroke, he became a compulsive artist. He couldn't stop drawing. He drew on everything: paper, guitar cases, walls, boxes.
His art looks obsessive. When he isn't drawing, he's writing. Many of his drawings include words, sometimes fragments of sentences that may or may not make sense to the viewer, sometimes one word written over and over and over in the margin.
Some of his portraits have so much cross-hatching they appear to be pulsating. Other portraits are of imaginary creatures that are elaborately patterned.
Although Sarkin is a changed person, his marriage has stayed together. His art has been shown in galleries around the world. Now he's the subject of the new book "Shadows Bright as Glass" that examines what happened to his brain and how that has manifested itself in his art.
The book is by journalist Amy Ellis Nutt, who was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in feature writing for her series about Sarkin.
Jon Sarkin, Amy Ellis Nutt, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. JON SARKIN (Artist): Thank you.
GROSS: Jon, I want to start with you. Would you describe the difference between who you were before the stroke and who you are now?
Mr. SARKIN: Yeah, before the stroke, I was a chiropractor, and I thought in a much more linear fashion about stuff. That's what doctors do, they think in a very organized, linear way where it's basically an algorithmic way of thinking.
Now, it's more a stream-of-consciousness, holistic, nonlinear way of thinking.
GROSS: And there's a difference that before the stroke, you had enjoyed sketching and painting, and after the stroke, you became, can we say a compulsive artist?
Mr. SARKIN: Yeah, before the stroke, I enjoyed it from a purely non-vocational point of view. Just, I enjoyed doodling on vacations. I enjoyed doodling while I was talking on the phone.
If we had a party at my house, sometimes I'd design the invitations, but never in my wildest dreams did I ever have a thought that I could somehow make this more vocational.
Now, obviously, it is. And I create art all the time because that's what I do, both from a professional standpoint and also a compulsive standpoint.
GROSS: Amy Ellis Nutt, what medical mysteries did you want to understand by writing this book about Jon, his stroke and how it transformed him?
Ms. AMY ELLIS NUTT (Author, "Shadows Bright as Glass"): There were a number of things. The first and most striking thing about Jon's case is that people who suffer identity disorders, from a stroke or a brain disease, are usually people who are unable to reflect on who they were before.
Jon is that rarest of individuals who was acutely aware and is acutely aware of what he lost and how he changed and the fact that he was a radically different man in body and soul.
So I was fascinated by this aspect of someone knowing that they are essentially two selves, a former self and a present self, and how that works and in essence what makes us who we are.
Is it memory? Is it emotion? Is it cognition? Is it personality? And I think all of those things play a part in Jon's story.
And coupled with that, I've always had an interest in sort of the philosophical issues of identity and consciousness, and it seemed to me that their stories paralleled beautifully in terms of philosophy and neuroscience's search for identifying where in the brain we can say identity rests and Jon's search to understand himself.
GROSS: Jon, what do you miss, or do you miss anything, about who you were before the stroke?
Mr. SARKIN: You know, my canned response to that, which I think is a good one, is the documentary that Bob Dylan - was done about Bob Dylan, about his 1966 tour to England. It's called "Don't Look Back." And that's what I'm all about these days, is I don't look back. I don't even entertain that question because I know that it's not productive to engage in gazing in my rear-view mirror in life.
GROSS: So forgive me while I ask Amy to do that on your behalf. Amy, you've extensively interviewed Jon's wife. What does she say about the difference between who he was before and after the stroke, and what does she miss about who he was before?
Ms. NUTT: Well, the stroke also happened early in their marriage. I think they'd only been married really two years. They had a nine-month-old son. So Kim often describes this as a very blissful time. They even, you know, would say to one another, I can't believe how happy we are.
So she in a way was just getting to know Jon. I mean, they had dated for a while, but it was still early in their marriage. She talks now about missing the man who was able to empathize with her, looking forward to the future, someone who wanted to provide for his family and, you know, lead a fairly typical life.
Kim is someone who is completely taken with being a mother, and her life has been raising children. And when the stroke happened, Kim not only wondered whether or not she would - whether or not Jon would survive, but what would be the husband she would get back and what would happen with their plans for family.
GROSS: Does she feel like she's now married to a different man than the man that she married?
Mr. SARKIN: I think she does in some ways. She knows, you know, Jon is the same man. And I think that over time, she's discovered more of the things about Jon that have remained.
But she knows, you know, very clearly that Jon is concerned with different things, that his life very much centers around art and that he's not the same man. But Kim is an amazing story in and of herself because she felt that, you know, she had married Jon, she loved Jon, and she was going to make the marriage work through thick or thin.
GROSS: And the marriage has stayed together, held together.
Ms. NUTT: Yes, they went on to have two more children. They have really three amazing kids. Curtis, Robin and Carolyn are, you know, just really terrific, terrific kids.
GROSS: Jon, you are so obsessed with your art now. Do you care much about people?
Mr. SARKIN: Yup, I do. I think - I find people endlessly fascinating. Yeah, I care about people a lot, yeah. I like people.
Ms. NUTT: You know, I can - I've known Jon now for about eight or nine years, and while I didn't know Jon before his stroke, one of the reasons I wanted to do this book was because I kept in touch with Jon through all these years. And I saw him change.
And I think one of the things, in addition to his art, really deepening and broadening, and his talent really flourishing, is that I noticed - I noticed slowly in John an ability to reconnect with people.
When I first met him, he was very much - he was very much self-absorbed. And I think Jon in some ways would probably say that he still is. But he didn't as easily connect with people.
Now Jon will call me up and ask me how you doing? And ask me questions about myself in ways that he didn't think to do, you know, years ago. So I actually think Jon has made progress in that regard.
GROSS: Amy, as part of the research for your book about Jon, you've spoken to many experts on the brain. You've really kind of tried to investigate exactly what happened when he had the stroke, which parts of his brain were affected, and how has that affected his perceptions and what he does as an artist, his relations with other people.
So I'm going to ask you to describe for us, based on what you know, what parts of his brain were affected by the stroke?
Ms. NUTT: One thing that the scientists have discovered who have taken brain scans of Jon's brain is that his heart stopped twice after his stroke. So he has areas of the brain, all over the brain, that were deprived of oxygen. The primary damage was to his left hemisphere and, in particular, to the left side of the cerebellum.
What was really interesting in my research was learning about what scientists are now finding out with regard to the cerebellum. What some of the research into the cerebellum has shown is that it carries our associations with sensory systems, how we track movements in the world around us.
And part of the deficit, I think, that Jon has is that his relationship to the environment, to the world, is literally fresh every moment. It's unfamiliar. He experiences the world almost as if it's new every day. Objects around him -people, movement, what he hears, what he sees - are very much experienced in a kind of fresh way that's extraordinary for an artist. GROSS: Now, that sounds lovely in one way, everything is fresh and new, but it also sounds like things might not have context or meaning, or there might be an inability to have a synthesis of what you're perceiving.
Mr. SARKIN: Terry?
Mr. SARKIN: That's tremendously insightful. That's - you - man, I'm impressed. I mean, that is - you're absolutely correct, and I'm blown away that you were able to perceive that.
GROSS: So is that, that's what it feels like, that everything is fresh and new, but there's no context, no synthesis?
Mr. SARKIN: It's exactly right. Everything is new, but because everything is new, everything is alien. You can't have one without the other, you know.
GROSS: Alien sounds - that sounds kind of scary. If everything's alien, then everything's potentially threatening, maybe.
Mr. SARKIN: Well, it's like - you ever - you know the "Alice in Wonderland" story, she falls down the rabbit hole, and everything is cool, but everything is weird, too.
GROSS: But there's a sense of perpetual weirdness that you're describing that -if you go to a new place, and it's weird at first, you're disoriented, you don't know your way around, you stay for a while, you get the lay of the land, it's familiar, it becomes more comfortable. You never get that feeling?
Mr. SARKIN: My learning curve in that regard is very slow and bad. There's a lot of things I can't do that other people can do because my learning curve is so hindered.
GROSS: Give me an example.
Mr. SARKIN: I can't drive. I can't remember where I put things. If you tell me your phone number, before my stroke, I could remember the phone number, but now I need to write it down. Because I lose things very easily from my wallet, I need to put a rubber band around my wallet. Stuff like that, really simple -the same kind of thing where people put a - tie a string around their finger to remember something.
My wife always puts the car keys in the refrigerator so she knows where they are. Same kind of stuff.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SARKIN: It's simple, mundane, prosaic coping mechanisms that get you through life. I have to do those more than I did before.
GROSS: My guests are Jon Sarkin, who became a compulsive artist after his stroke, and Amy Ellis Nutt, a journalist who's written a new book about Sarkin called "Shadows Bright as Glass." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest, Jon Sarkin, is a former chiropractor who became an obsessive artist after a brain hemorrhage and stroke. Also with us is journalist Amy Ellis Nutt, the author of a new book about how Sarkin's brain was transformed by the stroke and how that has manifested itself in his art. The book is called "Shadows Bright as Glass."
GROSS: Jon, when you see, do you have visual distortions?
Mr. SARKIN: Yup. My stroke left me with double vision. I see two images of everything. One of my favorite examples is I remember I was waiting in line, and I saw this guy with a really long ponytail. And I said: Wow, that's a really long ponytail.
But it was actually a woman that was in front of him. I couldn't see her face, but because I don't have depth perception, I saw it as a ponytail on the guy. And I've utilized that loss of depth perception and the weird way I see things with my art.
Ms. NUTT: One of the ways of looking at what happened to Jon - and this is a little bit simplistic - but because so much of the damage was to the left side of his brain, the side of the brain that scientists sort of call the interpreter; responsible for, you know, linear reasoning and routine, rehearsed processing. Whereas the right side of the brain is more intuitive, instinctual, it deals with novel situations that it then sort of passes over to the left side to figure out and make sense of.
In a way, Jon is stuck in the right hemisphere. It's through his right hemisphere, through the instinctive part, through the artistic part, through the part that responds to immediate sensations, that he's trying to work out the meaning of life, the meaning of his environment.
And because of that, it's a kind of constant - he'll be using different images in his art that he'll repeat over and over, a kind of perseveration, but in essence it's Jon's brain trying to figure out what it is and who he is.
Aristotle said that nature abhors a vacuum. If that's the case, then the brain absolutely abhors a mystery. It's always trying to figure out what's going on. When something is damaged, it tries to fill it in.
The brain essentially creates, constantly is creating stories, and that's what Jon is doing through his art. In essence, it's the story, the continuing story, his continuing journey of who he is.
GROSS: Amy, can I ask you to describe one of Jon's paintings or sketches that you think is a good illustration of what's going on in his mind?
Ms. NUTT: It's really difficult to do. You know, some of the iconic things in Jon's art - well, first of all repetition of words, and there's often a playfulness, a very witty use of language.
He brings in a lot of his literary background, things that he's read that he remembers, but then he'll bring in - it's fractured. It's pieces. And it's like he's constantly putting a puzzle together.
So he'll have, you know, cartoon faces with, you know, tubes running sort of in and out of their face, their mouth, their eyes, which is very reminiscent of the months that he spent in a hospital connected to wires and tubes. And then there's the use of constant - the cross-hatching, over and over and over, which is, you know, something that Jon has to keep doing.
He literally has to keep doing art. It's what defines him. It is who he is. And in a way, one of the most iconic things about Jon's art are the words - for instance the name Rauschenberg. And Jon explained it to me once. He really -first of all, he likes the artist very much. But he likes the word because he doesn't have to lift his pen off the page to write it.
That's how compulsive and important it is for him to do art, that even the moment it takes to lift your pen off the page to dot an I or to cross a T takes Jon away from who he is.
GROSS: Jon, one of your pieces says: Warhol, Dylan, Clancy, your dreams of sonar. Now, I have no idea what that means. What does that mean to you?
Mr. SARKIN: Well, let's break it down. Warhol, you get that, right?
GROSS: Yeah, Andy Warhol.
Mr. SARKIN: Okay, so what's the next word?
GROSS: Dylan, Bob Dylan.
Mr. SARKIN: Right.
GROSS: Clancy, I'm not sure which Clancy that is, whether it's
Mr. SARKIN: Clancy, you know that song? There was a song by the Buffalo Springfield called "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing." You know that song?
GROSS: I don't think I remember that. But go ahead.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SARKIN: Yeah, that's - okay, what's next?
GROSS: Your dreams of sonar.
Mr. SARKIN: Hmm. I don't know - I can't help you out in that regard.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: You don't know, either.
Mr. SARKIN: But a lot of it is just because I just - it probably made sense to me at the time, but just the - what I find interesting is the associations you make. As Amy said, the brain, we tell stories. Our brains forced to find patterns to tell stories.
And because those words are completely stream-of-consciousness, non-sequiturs, we have to make sense of the thing that makes no sense. So, that's what I find fascinating, how, like, people that are into this stream-of-consciousness stuff like I or like James Joyce or whoever, do things, and then the reader or the perceiver makes their own story about the thing that really has no story.
GROSS: Right, because what I read made no sense to you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SARKIN: Right, and if it doesn't make sense to me, you're on your own.
Ms. NUTT: You know, like Monet was always painting the Rouen Cathedral over and over and over. He was always trying to capture the moment. And he said that he wished he had been born blind and then suddenly gained his sight so that he could sort of see things fresh and see objects that he had never seen before.
That's how Jon experiences the world. He does experience it, really, moment to moment to moment.
GROSS: Amy Ellis Nutt and Jon Sarkin will be back in the second half of the show. Nutt's new book about Sarkin is called "Shadows Bright as Glass: The Remarkable Story of One Man's Journey from Brain Trauma to Artistic Triumph." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross. Let's get back to our conversation with Jon Sarkin and Amy Ellis Nutt.
In 1988, Sarkin developed a loud and constant ringing in his ears. The diagnosis, a blood vessel had shifted and was putting pressure on his auditory nerves. After undergoing surgery to remedy that, he suffered a brain hemorrhage and stroke which altered his personality. He became an obsessive artist and his art reflected the clutter and fragmentation he was experiencing mentally. He's made tens of thousands of drawings and his work has been shown in galleries around the world.
Amy Ellis Nutt is the author of a new book about Sarkin called "Shadows Bright as Glass."
Jon, this is a weird question to ask, but do you see your art as an expression of symptoms of your stroke?
Mr. SARKIN: Yeah. Yeah. It's a manifestation of what happened to me. There's no question about it. Its I've learned how to visually represent my existential dilemma caused by my stroke.
GROSS: Do you wish you could find a cure that would, you know, like give the perceptual synthesis that you want, the cohesion that you want and that would also quote "cure your art?" Do you know what I mean?
Mr. SARKIN: Yeah. Yeah. When I...
GROSS: You probably would not have that compulsion anymore to make the art, so...
Mr. SARKIN: Yeah. But the thing is when I found that when I entertain that question...
Mr. SARKIN: ...it makes me sad and it makes me miss what I've lost. And I've disciplined myself not to go there because it always takes me down a road that goes to a dead end and I've learned that to stop going down that road. That's why I draw all the time, because the drawing is a compulsion that takes me away from thinking about that stuff.
GROSS: And you choose not to do the kind of hypothetical what if. But can you look into the future at all, or is that hard to do as well?
Mr. SARKIN: I can but its the same thing. I choose not to because it's counterproductive for me. My art is all about what's happening right now. And if I think about the future it detracts from the experience of the now.
GROSS: So just to get a sense, we're talking about compulsive art here, so just to get a sense of how compulsive...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Like how much art do you do a day?
Mr. SARKIN: Well, it's funny. Like when my daughter, my youngest daughter learned how to count, her counting system was one, two, too much.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SARKIN: So I would have to go with her accounting system here. I haven't done one painting, I haven't done two paintings, but I've done too much paintings.
GROSS: I get the point.
Mr. SARKIN: A lot.
GROSS: Nevertheless, Amy, can you give us a more accurate accounting?
Ms. NUTT: Oh my god. Jon is right. Jon says he dreams about art. It's what he thinks about when he wakes up and it's what he's thinking about when he goes to sleep at night. But Jon can take a thick, artist's book and, you know, certainly in a day have drawn on each page. And he has a different kind of process. He doesn't usually deal with one thing at a time. He'll go through one page, then another page with the same color pen doing different things. And then he'll go back and add to each one.
But Jon recently - just to give you an idea - Jon recently whenever he goes away - and he goes away with his family a couple of times a year - he takes his art with him. He takes his art supplies with him. And he had, I believe - and Jon, you can correct me - I think somewhere he had 34 pieces of wood, little square pieces of wood, and he was away for I think, you know, five days, maybe six days - and he did a portrait on each one of those. He said he lost several of them so he only has 29 now. But I've seen them, and they're exquisite, and they're detailed. And, you know, that's the kind of perfusion of art that comes out of Jon.
Mr. SARKIN: And they're all the same portrait.
GROSS: But different?
Mr. SARKIN: A little bit different. But and answer your question, recently there's a newspaper article about me and she said, I don't know where she got this number from, she said he's done 70,000 pieces of art.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SARKIN: And I'm looking at that and I'm thinking - I talk to my wife and I said what do you think about 70,000 number? My wife said, maybe it's too big, but maybe it's too small. I don't know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. NUTT: Well, you know, here's the thing about when I visited Jon up in Gloucester once he kept his art in like a storage room. And when I say kept his art, it was thrown in there up to the ceiling. I mean you could barely open the door to get in. You know, Jon does something and then he moves on.
In his studio, hell have piles of his art, you know, in the corner. Hell have art on the floor and, you know, sometimes hell step across something and hell make a footprint and hell think oh, thats - I like that, you know, that adds to it. So, you know, Jon's art literally is all around him. I would suggest that 70,000 might be conservative.
GROSS: Amy, did you take any of Jons art to the neurologists and scientists who you consulted in doing the research for a book.
Ms. NUTT: Yes. Alice Flaherty up at Harvard, for one. But I actually first learned about Jon through a scientist, through a neurologist who - Todd Feinberg. I was doing a story about the search for consciousness for the Star-Ledger, the newspaper where I work. And I noticed, on his wall, a piece of art that was really intriguing. It was turned out to be a series of - I thought it was abstract. It turned out to be a series of 1950s Cadillac fins, which is a common Jon Sarkin theme.
And when I asked him about it Feinberg told me how he had been contacted by Jon after, oddly enough, appearing on your show, talking about his book "Altered Egos," which is about stroke patients who have suffered identity disorders. And Jon heard that and called him up and said Id like you to explain me to me. And thats been hard for people to do. But, I think one of the things that people come away with when they do see Jons art is the sense of compulsion, almost hyper graphic, and the feeling that Jon needs to get all this out.
GROSS: My guests are Jon Sarkin, who became a compulsive artist after a stroke, and Amy Ellis Nutt, a journalist who has written a new book about Sarkin called "Shadows Bright as Glass."
Well talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guests are Amy Ellis Nutt and Jon Sarkin. Amy Ellis Nutt is the author of the new book "Shadows Bright as Glass: The Remarkable Story of One Man's Journey from Brain Trauma to Artistic Triumph." And that one man is Jon Sarkin, who had a stroke in the late 80s and it transformed him. He had been a chiropractor, and then after the stroke, he became a really compulsive visual artist. And the book is about the experiential part of that from Jon's and the kind of scientific brain research aspect of it. What does it tell us about the brain? And what does research tell us about what happened to Jon.
I think an issue that's very important for each of you is how does the brain creates a self. Like, we have an identity, we have self-awareness, and that's situated some place in the brain. Nobody knows where.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Like researchers are trying to find, like, what is the site of consciousness in the brain and nobody really knows. But I was wondering if you feel that, Amy, your research have given you any insights or raised questions that you never thought about before about what creates the self?
Ms. NUTT: A lot of people - philosophers, scientists - consider the hard problem of consciousness, how subjectively we can understand the objective consciousness, impossible. You know, William James, the great philosopher, psychologist, once said that trying to understand consciousness was like trying to see the dark by turning on the light. You know, as soon as you do, you obliterate it. But one thing I discovered in doing the research, and also in spending so much time with Jon, is that I think we can talk about a sense of self with some validity. And profoundly, I've discovered through Jon, and I think through the way brain behavior in patients who have lost a sense of themselves, is that the way we connect is through imagination, through stories - whether its our brain trying to explain something that doesnt make sense, whether it's through singing songs, painting pictures. But that, essentially, our brains are storytelling devices. Thats how it works. And when we lose a sense of ourselves, to get it back, we sort of have to create the story of ourselves in order to understand it. We have to rewrite the narrative.
GROSS: Jon, one of the things I find really just amazing about your story is the transformation. I mean, so many of us have tried really hard to make changes, fundamental changes in who we are. You know, to be more, you know, whether it's something like just to be neater and less disorganized; or to be happier and less sad. Or, you know, to, you know, work more on being more physically fit or whatever. You know, like from the superficial to the profound. And those changes, they are just - it's really hard to change yourself. You always feel like you're wired a certain way, no matter hard you change, it's hard to create new patterns of behavior. It's hard to fundamentally change who you are. But you had this fundamental change against your will. It happened as a result of, you know, damage to your brain caused by a stroke, but you had this fundamental change. And so the self can change, whether we want it to or not but sometimes it's something that happens to us as a result - as opposed to something that we've tried to do thats behind the change.
Because this is not change that you sought. It wasn't like I will try to be a better this or that. Or I will try to, it just happen to you. Did you feel like a stranger to yourself for a while?
Mr. SARKIN: Oh, yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SARKIN: I mean Amy - when Amy was saying how for a long time I was totally self-absorbed and I gradually changed, I'm getting better at compensating for what happened to me. Initially, the feeling of strange, of being so different than I was before was alarming. It was, it really took some getting used to. I really upset my wife, my family, my friends, because my behavior was so bizarre is so dramatically different. I've learned how to not be that way and to be more comfortable with who I am now. I've learned coping mechanisms and I've learned how to compensate for the difference. But when the difference first happened, I was unable to do that kind of stuff.
Ms. NUTT: I just want to give you one other quick example of Jons way of thinking. Very recently Jon and I were together driving somewhere and I'm not sure what we were talking about but he said, you know, I really like the ocean because it doesn't have a strong opinion. And I understood what Jon meant. But it's a very different way of thinking of an inanimate object. That it's just there. You can interact with it the way you want to, you know, it's unchanging. But to Jon, the ocean doesn't have a strong opinion and that's his expression of it.
GROSS: Jon, Amy did so much research about the brain and about your brain to write the new book "Shadows Bright as Glass." What did you learn from her research about yourself?
Mr. SARKIN: Well, I thought the most - the thing that I learned the most about the book was the book is not just this great biography about me, it's using me as a jumping off point to talk about the whole history of of neuroscientific endeavor. And I'm starting to see myself in that fabric and in the pageant of pushing the ball ahead as far as what our understanding of the brain is. So I'm not seeing myself as singular as I did before, but more of a fractal of the whole, whole of brain understanding.
GROSS: And Amy, what did you learn about the brain that you found most remarkable?
Ms. NUTT: You know, it's kind of a corny answer, but the resilience of the brain and the paradox of it. On the one hand the brain, you know, it develops, you know, at six weeks in utero we have the nervous system of a shrimp, and by puberty our brains are the most complex objects in the universe, you know, with enough blood vessels to stretch from Philadelphia to Portland, Maine and, you know, nerve fibers that would circle the globe four times.
So, on the one hand, the brain is also runs on about 20 watts of energy, which is basically enough to, you know, your refrigerator light come on. It's slower than electricity through wire and yet, you know, it creates Shakespeare's sonnets and plays; Newtons mathematics; Mozart's music. So I think I learned that the brain is paradoxical in that respect, but also tremendously resilient.
There was one story that struck me, in particular, in my research. And it was a few years ago a woman in the hospital in Boston in her 30s was profoundly, profoundly disabled - in a vegetative state her entire life because she was basically born without either hemisphere, just her brain stem and a clump of tissue on it. She was insensate to touch, to pain, obviously couldnt speak and was blind. And she was being sort of reassessed by doctors and they asked another neurologist to come in to examine her. And for some reason someone opened a child's music box in her room. And for the first time in 30 years this woman turned to it and smiled. And this it was extraordinarily moving to the scientist and he then made sure for the rest of this woman's life - which was just a few years - that there was always music in her room, you know, classical or modern music, because she responded to that.
So here's a human being that you can question, who is she? What is she? Does she even have a self when all she has is basically a brainstem, and yet, was moved by music and made a connection because someone else reached in to find her. And I think that taught me that, you know, the brain can lose everything -you can have so much damage, you can barely have a brain, and yet you can have a self.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us.
Ms. NUTT: Thank you.
GROSS: Thank you Jon Sarkin...
Mr. SARKIN: Youre welcome.
GROSS: ...and Amy Ellis Nutt, thank you both.
Ms. NUTT: Thanks so much, Terry.
GROSS: Amy Ellis Nutt is the author of a new book about Jon Sarkin called "Shadows Bright as Glass: The Remarkable Story of One Man's Journey from Brain Trauma to Artistic Triumph." You can read an excerpt on our website, where you'll also find a link to Sarkins artwork. Thats freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, David Bianculli reviews a new box set of Ernie Kovacs pioneering comedy shows from the 1950s.
This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Jon Sarkin was working as a chiropractor when he suffered a massive stroke. Afterwards, he became an obsessive visual artist whose work was as fragmented and cluttered as his mind had become. Sarkin is the subject of a new book, Shadows Bright as Glass, by science writer Amy Nutt.
Amy Ellis Nutt was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for her series "The Accidental Artist," which is the basis for Shadows Bright as Glass. She writes for the Newark Star-Ledger and lives in Watchung, N.J.
Jon Sarkin was working as a chiropractor when he suffered a massive stroke. Afterwards, the 35-year-old became a volatile visual artist with a ferocious need to create, as his brain tried to make sense of the world at large.
"[My artwork is] a manifestation of what happened to me," Sarkin tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I've learned how to visually represent my existential dilemma caused by my stroke."
Sarkin is the subject of Shadows Bright as Glass, a new book by science writer Amy Nutt. The book describes Sarkin's journey from happy-go-lucky doctor to manically-compulsive artist. It also raises larger questions about identity and what makes us each who we are.
"Is it memory? Is it emotion? Is it cognition? Is it personality?" asks Nutt. "I think all of those things play a part in Jon's story."
Sarkin's story began on a hot day in 1988, when he was out playing golf. He felt a throbbing, excruciating pain in his head and heard a ringing in his ears. After surgery, his brain began to swell and bleed. When Sarkin woke up, he was a completely different man.
"His heart stopped twice after his stroke so he has areas all over the brain that were deprived of oxygen," says Nutt. "The primary damage was to his left hemisphere and, in particular, to the left side of the cerebellum."
What research into the left side of the cerebellum has shown is that it carries our associations with sensory systems — that is, how we track movements in the world around us.
"Part of the deficit that Jon has is that his relationship with the environment and the world is literally fresh every moment," explains Nutt. "It's unfamiliar. He experiences the world almost as if it's new, every day. Objects around him, people and movement are experienced in a fresh way, and that is extraordinary for an artist."
Sarkin's art often features words and cross-hatches and images overlapping each other. His paintings, which have a cartoonish Robert Crumb-like quality, have been featured in The New Yorker and The New York Times and now hang in private galleries around the world.
"In essence, it's the continuing journey of who he is," says Nutt. "It's something that Jon has to keep doing. He literally has to keep doing art. It's what defines him and it's who he is."
And what makes Sarkin's case particularly unusual, says Nutt, is that he's able to reflect on who he was before his stroke.
"Jon is that rarest of individuals who was acutely aware and is acutely aware of what he lost and how he changed," she says. "I was fascinated by this aspect of someone knowing they are essentially two selves — a former self and a present self — and how that works."