“Revealing Culture,” Showing Work by Disabled Artists, Open at Ripley Center

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The painting is the kind that makes me tilt my head in wonderment. What is it exactly? A shrub atop a world of subterranean passageways?

The piece's title, Cajal's Revenge, offered little in the way of explanation until I spoke with the artist, Katherine Sherwood of Berkeley, California. "Ramón y Cajal is one of the only anatomists that would do his own illustrations," said Sherwood. As it turns out, the shrub is no shrub at all. It's Cajal's rendering of a Purkinje cell, one of the largest neurons in the human brain.

Cajal's Revenge is one of 130-plus works of art by 54 contemporary artists with disabilities featured in "Revealing Culture," a juried, VSA exhibition on display at the Smithsonian's International Gallery in the S. Dillon Ripley Center through August 29.

Sherwood, who teaches a course at the University of California, Berkeley, on the intersection of art, medicine and disability, came upon Cajal's work during her 2005-06 Guggenheim fellowship. Her project was to utilize neuroanatomy from the 16th century up through the present in her mixed-media paintings.

"I call it Cajal's Revenge because he always wanted to be an artist. His father was also an anatomist so he refused his son to go into something like art," said Sherwood. "But it's funny to me. The revenge comes in that he used his skills of drawing to garner the Nobel Prize ."

One could also say that Sherwood's art is a beautiful revenge on the the personal hardship she herself has faced. She juxtaposes century-old illustrations with 21st century brain scans—often her own. "I was immediately taken with them," said Sherwood, of her scans. She suffered a stroke in 1997, which paralyzed her on her right side and forced her to teach herself to paint with her left hand.

To create her works of art, Sherwood adheres digital prints of her angiograms, for example, to her canvas, then paints with latex and acrylic and applies a transparent oil glaze to the top. "They won't know that it is my arterial system that they are looking at," said Sherwood. "But I hope to reposition those things for spiritual means."

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