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Jon Sarkin: When Brain Injuries Transform Into Art.

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.

43:22

Other segments from the episode on April 18, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 18, 2011: Interview with Amy Ellis Nutt and Jon Sarkin; Review of DVD boxset "The Ernie Kovacs Collection."

Transcript

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Jon Sarkin: When Brain Injuries Transform Into Art

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?

GROSS: Yeah.

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.

GROSS: Okay.

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. I’m 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. It’s 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...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

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 it’s 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.

GROSS: Whoa.

(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, he’ll have piles of his art, you know, in the corner. He’ll have
art on the floor and, you know, sometimes he’ll step across something and he’ll
make a footprint and he’ll think oh, that’s - 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 Jon’s 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 I’d like you to explain me to me. And
that’s been hard for people to do. But, I think one of the things that people
come away with when they do see Jon’s 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."

We’ll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re 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 it’s our brain trying to explain something that doesn’t make sense,
whether it's through singing songs, painting pictures. But that, essentially,
our brains are storytelling devices. That’s 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 that’s 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 Jon’s 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; Newton’s 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 couldn’t 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: You’re 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 Sarkin’s artwork. That’s 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.
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Ernie Kovacs: The King Of Early Television Comedy

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

From 1950 until he died in an auto accident in 1962, Ernie Kovacs created some
of the most inventive and unusual television ever made. That was true then and
it’s just as true half a century later, says our TV critic David Bianculli. A
new DVD box set collects more than 13 hours of the TV pioneer’s best and rarest
programs. And David, who also teaches TV history, couldn’t be more thrilled.

(Soundbite of song, "Solfeggio")

Mr. ERNIE KOVACS (Comedian): (Singing) Do, me, so, do.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVID BIANCULLI: If you don't know who Ernie Kovacs is, and never saw his
brilliantly bizarre TV specials, the music you’re hearing now, an otherwise
obscure Italian song called "Solfeggio" won't be associated with any specific
images. But if you know Ernie, you're doubtlessly conjuring up pictures of one
of his signature recurring bits, The Nairobi Trio. It's nothing more than three
people wearing gorilla masks, pretending to play the song while one of them,
the conductor, gets hit over the head at the end of each verse.

Describing it doesn't make it sound funny - you have to see it. And even then,
you have to share Ernie's sense of the absurd. More than anyone else in the 50s
and 60s, he stressed, and played with, the vision part of television. He was
the first special effects artist on TV - the first one to play, really play,
with all these new-fangled cameras and videotapes and other toys.

But Ernie Kovacs was so, so much more than that, and a new boxed set from
Shout! Factory called "The Ernie Kovacs Collection" makes that case superbly.
If all Ernie did was push the medium of TV into new directions - with quickly
edited blackout sketches that later were copied by "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In,"
and with full-length music videos that predated MTV by more than 20 years -
that would have been enough. But he had other amazing gifts as well.

As a sketch comic, his recurring characters were memorably, daringly original.
He would put on silly costumes, and sillier accents, to play everyone from TV
horror-film host Uncle Gruesome to movie star Rock Mississippi. And more than a
generation before "In Living Color" gave us the openly gay movie critics of
"Men in Film," Ernie Kovacs gave us TV's proudly prissy poet laureate, Percy
Dovetonsils.

(Soundbite of "The Ernie Kovacs Show")

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KOVACS (as Percy Dovetonsils): It's so nice to blink pinky via the orthicon
tube, as the expression goes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KOVACS (as Percy Dovetonsils): Certainly, it is nice to join once again
with you out there. I was reminiscing only this morning.

BIANCULLI: And Ernie Kovacs had a third great talent, perhaps his most
underrated one. When he was himself, talking to the camera, he not only was a
natural, he looked natural. He talked conversationally, not like an announcer.
And he sat there, looking directly into the camera, and talked matter-of-factly
about a lot of things, including television. In that way, he was doing in the
50s and 60s what Jon Stewart is doing now - looking around at the TV landscape
and pointing out its failures and excesses by making fun of it.

Here’s Ernie speaking from the TV control room as the director next to him
calls out shots, setting up one of several sketches in a 1961 show about TV,
sex and violence.

(Soundbite of "The Ernie Kovacs Show")

Mr. KOVACS: Actually, it isn't so much that there’s an excess of sex and
violence in these various medias. It's really that there isn't quite enough.
Now if there were more we wouldn't notice it so much. Now let's take for
instance the weather forecast.

BIANCULLI: And at this point, the camera cuts to Jolene Brand, one of the
lovely ladies who was part Ernie's repertory company, reclining on a plush
couch. She's wearing a sheer sexy nightgown, and as she talks, the camera pulls
in closer and closer on her face. By the time she's finished all we see are her
lips.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of "The Ernie Kovacs Show")

Ms. JOLENE BRAND (Actress): Hi, weather lovers. About that sunshine today, hmm?
Crazy. I don't know how to tell you this. We might have a little rain tonight.
Mm-hmm. Ole Pluvius is in there pitching. You see we have this low pressure
area. And we have this high pressure area. It just don’t make the scene.
Cuckoo. There's 78 in California today, 74 in New Jersey. Twenty-one. Ooh.
Twenty-one, 21 in Alaska and 108 in Georgia. Try to keep cool.

BIANCULLI: Ernie Kovacs started in TV in Philadelphia in 1950, and hosted an
early-morning TV show, "3 to Get Ready," that was the first TV morning show
anywhere - not just in Philly. From there, and for the next dozen years, he
hopped all over the dial. Whenever one network let him go, another would just
as eagerly grab him up, because absolutely no one was doing what Ernie did.
This brilliant new Shout! Factory collection includes the earliest surviving
work by Ernie Kovacs, most of his classics, and so much bonus material that
it's absolutely invaluable.

"The Ernie Kovacs Collection" is a mandatory purchase for anyone who loves
television and wants to experience some of its richest comedy roots. But as I
see it, it's also almost a public service.

Sadly, there's nowhere to see Ernie Kovacs on television these days - not on TV
Land, Nick at Nite, or any other network that ought to be proud to keep his
legacy alive. We TV history teachers try to do our part - but now, thanks to
Shout! Factory, you can have a graduate course on Ernie Kovacs in the privacy
of your own home. And there's no final exam - just a ridiculous number of
laughs.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com. He teaches
TV and film history and film at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed the
new DVD box set "The Ernie Kovacs Collection."

I'm Terry Gross.

We’ll close with a track featuring violinist Billy Bang from his album "Prayer
for Peace." Bang died last Monday at the age of 63 of complications from lung
cancer.

(Soundbite of music from album "Prayer for Peace)
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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