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 Katherine Sherwood  (1948 - )

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Lived/Active: California/New York      Known for: floral painting, conceptual art, teaching

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Ad Code: 4
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
A Branch of Camelias
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following information is from People Magazine, Dec., 2001, Vol. 54, No. 23

By Thomas Fields-Meyer

After a Stroke Almost Killed Her, Katherine Sherwood's Paintings Come Alive

It started with a sudden pain on the top left side of Katherine Sherwood's head—"the worst headache of my life," recalls the 49-year-old artist, who is an art professor at the University of California at Berkeley.  She was in a campus studio that morning of May 2, 1997, offering critiques of her graduate students' paintings, when she was felled by a stroke, a massive cerebral hemorrhage.  Within seconds she began to lose feeling in her right arm and leg, and after a minute her entire right side was paralyzed, her speech gone.

At the emergency room, doctors struggled to save her life and minimize injury to her brain.  Though their quick efforts spared her, the damage was enormous; neurologists feared Sherwood would never return to the life she had known as a successful artist, whose abstract works have hung in galleries and museums on both coasts. "I knew she was right-handed," says Dr. Randall Starkey, the treating neurologist. "Immediately I felt her career was probably over."

Instead it has taken a remarkable, almost miraculous, turn for the better.  Struggling to learn to walk and talk all over again, Sherwood took up painting with her left hand six months later, unleashing a creative torrent that has taken her work to unimagined dimensions. "I feel like I am transported in my process much more than I was with my right hand," says the artist, whose canvases, which once sold for around $7,000 each, now go for up to $20,000. "I am frankly amazed that I am able to do these paintings."  Just as moved are her fans. "The new work is more robust, visceral and physical," says Janet Bishop, a curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, who notes a shift in colors to pale greens and bright oranges.  Adds San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker: "Her work acquired an urgency that it didn't have before."

So has her life since that spring morning when doctors at Berkeley's Alta Bates Hospital determined that blood vessels in the left side of Sherwood's brain had burst, threatening more damage. "If this hemorrhage had expanded further," says Starkey, "it would have killed her."  Though Sherwood remained conscious throughout, her husband, Jeff Adams, who arrived in 20 minutes, feared the worst when he saw his wife having a CAT scan. "We held hands and knew that everything was going to be okay," says Adams, 48, an abstract artist, "not knowing what was ahead."

Though she was relieved to be alive (strokes and brain hemorrhages kill nearly 160,000 annually in the U.S.), Sherwood faced a grim prognosis.  Doctors warned she would never regain the use of her right hand.  But lying in the hospital, Sherwood simply wouldn't accept the notion that her art career was over. "Besides my family, art is the most central thing in my life," says Sherwood, who spent six weeks in the hospital. "I can't even imagine not doing it."

Adams put aside his work to help "I didn't have time for a depression," he says. "You stop everything and get this partner back on her feet."  With the help of a speech therapist, Sherwood overcame partial tongue paralysis and regained the ability to talk.  Physical and occupational therapy over five months helped her to get back on her feet and eventually walk again, using a hand-carved Irish cane for two years and always dragging her right foot behind her.  Even now, walking cane-free, she says, "it feels like I am having to carry around buckets of concrete on my right side."  Still, she was confident she would paint again. "I thought, 'Oh, I can do it,' " she says. " 'I'm going to wait until my right hand comes along.' "

When her HMO stopped financing therapy sessions five months after the stroke, she applied for grants from two arts foundations that stepped in with money to help and to pay for a studio assistant. Yet Sherwood had been unable to gather the strength to return to art work until October 1997, when she underwent a cerebral angiogram, a test that produced a photographic image of her brain's arteries. That angiogram was a turning point, an epiphany. "It looked to me like a Sung Dynasty landscape painting," says Sherwood. "I was just so excited by it."

So moved, in fact, that she returned to the studio, for the first time trying to paint with her left hand—and incorporating reproductions of the angiogram in her work. Laying the canvas on an old bed platform and maneuvering herself around it in a wheeled office chair, she felt strangely liberated. "I didn't have the same expectations I had with my right hand," she says. "That helped my process." Switching from oil to acrylic paints, she introduced lighter colors and started working on larger canvases. "It's as if she pulled out all the stops," says Lawrence Rinder, a curator at New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art, where two of her paintings hung in the 2000 Biennial. "It gained a succinctness and a potency that is remarkable in an artist in any condition."  U.C. San Francisco neurologist Bruce Miller says people suffering damage to the left side of the brain sometimes experience new creative insight. "The two hemispheres," he notes, "have a different contribution to the art."

Sherwood's determination and ability to adapt stemmed in part from hardship early on. She was 9, the oldest of three daughters of a New Orleans salesman and his homemaker wife, when her father died at 33 from an aneurysm. (Doctors have long told her the condition is not hereditary.) Remarried to an electrical engineer, her mother moved the family to Santa Barbara, Calif.  After starting college in Memphis, Sherwood transferred to U.C. Davis, where she began studying art.

Though at first she shied away from becoming an artist for fear of bad reviews, she did start painting, spending time in San Francisco and Los Angeles before moving to New York City, where she met Adams in 1985.  They married four years later and moved back to the Bay Area, eventually settling in the town of Rodeo, north of Berkeley, where they live with daughter Odette, 9.  She created a body of work with objects like bingo cards, abstract symbols for health and luck, and earth tones to explore themes like luck and fate. "I was preoccupied with fate, which could interrupt your life in a matter of seconds and completely alter it," she says.

Then life came to imitate art as her own fate took a dramatic turn.  Once busily juggling career and home, she has been forced by her condition to focus on one task at a time.  Though she misses her more active life of walking, yoga and swimming, she has learned that the stroke also had benefits. "I like that I cannot go as fast as everybody else," says Sherwood. "Because of my circumstance, I'm aware of every single step that I take."

Thomas Fields-Meyer
Lyndon Stambler in Rodeo

Contributors:Lyndon Stambler.,,20135913,00.html

Biography from Gallery Paule Anglim:
Over many exhibitions, the artist’s visual repertoire has evolved to incorporate collage and digital imagery.  She has sought to bring together traditional media with unusual elements: satellite photography, brain scans, angiograms, infrared photography and medieval calligraphic emblems.  Some of these elements are employed in the new work.

Sherwood has exhibited with Gallery Paule Anglim for over twenty years.  Other exhibitions include the Whitney Biennial (1998) and solo shows in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

She has been awarded a Joan Mitchell Foundation Grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship Award, as well as the Adeline Kent Award from the San Francisco Art Institute.

She is currently a Professor at the School of Art Practice at the University of California in Berkeley.

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