Scientists often work with people who have lost the use of part of the brain to learn how the normal brain works.
After working with Lonni Sue, Landau concludes: “If we think that art and creativity have to be rooted in what we know about ourselves or what we remember about ourselves, that clearly is not the case.”
Lonni Sue has been full of surprises. She can remember how to fly an airplane — “It’s like dancing in the sky,” she said in an interview — but she can’t remember the death of her father.
She can’t recognize art she treasured before her illness — “Starry Night” by Vincent van Gogh, for example. Yet she can instantly recognize her own past work.
She can’t remember that she was married for 10 years, but she can remember how to play Bach suites on her viola. But if, as she’s putting her instrument away, her mother thanks her for playing, she’s likely to look astonished and say, “Oh, did I play?”
She cannot produce the kind of finished art she once drew, but her work shows flashes of her old skill as well as her characteristic whimsy and puns.
“When you draw a drawing, you can draw people in,” she says.
We often think that human memory is some sort of internal hard-drive, humming away inside the skull. But it’s not, Landau says. “Memory is not just one thing; it’s many things.”
She and others point to this collection of 36 artworks — some from before the encephalitis and more from after — as a prism for looking at a few of the riddles of the mind, though she says it will leave observers with more questions than answers: questions about the nature of memory and of creativity, and what an artist needs to make art.
Lonni Sue and her family live near Princeton. She seems happy and cheerful, although she says she misses flying.
She is rarely without her worn dictionary and a 4-inch stack of white typing paper, often stopping to capture a fleeting thought on a page before it flies away. She rises at 5:30 a.m. and spends almost all her waking hours drawing and creating puzzles.
Her family has kept everything she has produced since her illness in hopes it can offer insight into the relationship between neural science and creativity.
So far, it’s a stack of paper 15 feet thick.
Her sister Aline says, “Art is the cardinal part of her life.” Aline believes it functions as an external memory drive that keeps Lonni Sue’s ideas from floating away.
“Time goes too fast,” Lonni Sue says.
Her most recent puzzle is an alphabetical Noah’s Ark, taking on words two by two, beginning with “Absolutely airplanes beautifully bring . . .” Lonni Sue turns the list into a little song, which she sings in a pitch-perfect, lilting soprano.
Her final pair is “zestfully zooming.”
John Pancake was arts editor of The Washington Post from 1996 to 2008 and spent the past three years in Ukraine and Taiwan. He lives in the Shenandoah Valley. His last piece for The Washington Post was about his quest to see Shakespeare’s worst play.
Puzzles of the Brain: An Artist’s Journey Through Amnesia
at the Walters Art Museum through Dec. 11 (10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays). Produced in partnership with the Cognitive Science Department of Johns Hopkins University. The museum is at 600 N. Charles St., Baltimore. 410-547-9000 or www.thewalters.org.