After suffering a massive stroke, artist John Bavaro took scans of his brain and “painted” them with iPhone apps for his series “BrainTree,” currently hanging at Cloud Gallery.
Now is the time when people take measure of the departing year and lay their plans for a fresh start. They may even, depending on how bad their year has been, be inspired to raise themselves, phoenix-like, from the ashes.
John Bavaro, an associate professor of art at Pennsylvania’s Edinboro University, had a pretty bad year in 2012, when he suffered a severe stroke from a fraying carotid artery that left him unable to speak and scarcely able to use his dominant, right hand.
After a year of recovery — he had to relearn how to draw and still has some trouble speaking — he transformed his ordeal into the series of artworks in “BrainTree.”
John Bavaro: “BrainTree”
10 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturdays, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sundays, through Jan. 30, Cloud Gallery, 901 E. Pike St., Seattle (206-720-2054 or cloudgalleryseattle.wordpress.com).
Each piece is a light box incorporating brain scans, or scans of his carotid artery, from the time of his treatment. These are integrated with images he “painted” using an iPad Procreate app and an app called TreeSketch that can create and manipulate images of trees.
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Digital painting isn’t new to Bavaro. His earlier work includes a series of “faux antiquities” collectively titled “iPhone Fayum Portraits,” with images of contemporary people made on his iPhone, then printed and placed on old wood with beeswax and gold leaf to look like ancient Roman renderings.
But the TreeSketch app held a particular allure — it allowed him to explore the parallels between the physiology of the human brain and, as he puts it, “the growth parameters” of trees.
“I literally had to ‘rebuild my brain’ from scratch,” he wrote in an email. In doing so, he “was struck by the metaphor of rewiring, or regrowth of connections that had died and now needed to be rewired.”
Climb the stairs to the dim mezzanine floor of Cloud Gallery (tucked inside Capitol Hill’s Frame Central) and you’ll see his multilayered meditations on that “regrowth” glowing in the dark. All the light boxes are identical in size, but their compositions and colors vary considerably.
“Shiva,” named for the Hindu god of destruction and transformation, places an eerie, crouching, radiant figure within a brain-shaped tangle of branches. Behind this figure is a starry void that lends a floating weightlessness to the hallucinatory specter.
In “Reservoir,” the X-ray outline of a human skull — presumably Bavaro’s — is overlaid with psychedelic-colored lacework of synaptic connections. The “reservoir” of the title may be the small, curving pool of blue at the base of the skull, near a ruptured carotid artery that is supposed to supply blood to the brain.
“BrainTree 2” overtly spells out the affinities between brain structure and tree structure. If you do a bit of online sleuthing, it also lets you figure out the names of Bavaro’s doctor and the hospital where he was treated. That information, along with the times and dates of the scans, recur in several other light boxes — sometimes upside down, sometimes in mirror reversal.
Here, and in other standout works, the clinical and the visionary collide with intricate volatility. Anyone who has experienced the strange sights and sounds that a damaged brain can produce will recognize this territory.
The wonder is that Bavaro has the nerve and honesty to share his progress through that territory with the rest of us — reminding us just how fragile and tenuous our hold on our well-being is, and letting us find solace in the wondrous processes of regrowth and reconnection that let us heal.