From Attorney to Artist to Researcher: Interview with Jim Chambliss

Jim Chambliss is the integrated personality of an attorney, artist, and doctoral candidate working in a combined program of creative art and medicine. His pictures describe his goal – to portray how epilepsy propelled him to discover a unique set of talents and give voice to a community of artists with epilepsy.

During a recent visit to the States from Melbourne, where he is studying for his PhD, he spoke with “One of the things that describes what I am doing as a goal is to show just how a picture is worth a thousand words. And we are going to find over a thousand pictures as we begin to help people understand the individual with epilepsy rather than just the condition.”

He added: “Some of the artistic expression will provide a visual dialogue of what occurs during seizures and interictal behavioral changes. The nature of our research focuses on how epilepsy can, in some circumstances, be enabling - not just disabling - through the stimulation and enhancement of artistic expression.”

Bringing together artists

To further explore artistic expression, Chambliss is interviewing artists in the USA, Australia and other parts of the world and asking for ten images of their existing art work. Chambliss pointed out: “Right now we have approximately 80 artists who have volunteered to work with us. In addition to their images, we are administering drawing exercises that will help us better understand how a person expresses himself or herself visually.”

“One exercise may be used as a diagnostic tool because we believe that certain factors in drawing give an indication that has more accuracy than electrodes that might be hooked up to them to confirm the disorder,” he added.

Artists whom Chambliss is interviewing are also invited to write about the most significant influences in their art, and there will be a website to facilitate this. Chambliss said, “We are interested in artistic influences of people with chronic medical conditions such as epilepsy and migraines. What is it that sparks creativity?”

Chambliss noted that: “The interviews are a means for us to gather information and begin to work developing art exhibitions and publications so that we may share information we gather with as many people as is possible. It is a seriously intense process of recruiting participants.”

The process includes making contacts through neurologists and following all confidentiality requirements. The physician may inform patients of Chambliss’s study, but the patient needs to make the initial contact. At that point, Chambliss will send them the information that is necessary to participate.

He said, “Almost all artists want to have their artwork seen and interpreted. However, what we want to convey in an exhibit is not cause and effect; that is, you are not a good artist because you have epilepsy, but rather epilepsy is simply one of the many factors that make a person uniquely human.”

The Rubik's Cube Epilepsy Puzzle

Chambliss’s classic work is the Rubik's Cube, which depicts various ways that he has seen himself. “The side with my face is a representation of when I had a seizure in December 1998. I stiffened and fell flat on my face on a hardwood floor, but I have no memory of the event. Later my face and persona were not recognizable to me. I had a broken nose, chipped teeth, and one eye swollen closed.”

In his own description of the event he writes, “The ceramic sculptures used to depict the visual diary of my experiences, emotions and research are Blind Sided, Broken Crank Organ, Discovering the Source and Puzzled. (See attached to read Chambliss’s own description of Puzzled.)

He said that after the incident he also had partial amnesia and other cognitive damage – his math and spelling skills temporarily reverted to those of an 8th or 9th grader.

“I had a difficult time recalling and processing information,” he said. “If you think of using a net to catch fish, with me, it was like using a net with big holes in it so that it slowed the process of remembering.”

Chambliss said, “I am often reluctant to speak of the cognitive damage from my brain injury and the altered behaviors from epilepsy, because of the stigma that can stem from brain impairment. It is so easy for even the best intentioned of people to proliferate the stigma of epilepsy through focusing only on the negative impacts that confront a person with partial brain impairment without balancing the positive attributes of the individual as a whole.”

“I have fortunately been able to recover, adjust, and move on to a point where the brain injury in 1998 and epilepsy do not hold me back in 2008. My personal experiences have made me more empathetic and understanding of the plight and frustrations of people with epilepsy, while more impassioned to help.”

“When I did Puzzled, I did it in a complicated way, because people often did not want to listen to my problems as often as I felt compelled to talk about them. Whereas with art, people can take away as much or as little as they want to extract from the piece.”

When asked, “What is the most valuable aspect to the research that you are now conducting?” Chambliss responded: “Everyone deserves the opportunity to be understood. We need to express ourselves. But sometimes in order to do so, we need an open door. We are opening the door for articles and art work for those people who have a gift and who also have epilepsy. There is still a stigma. I am not an artist because I have epilepsy. I am an artist with epilepsy and it opens the door to novel thoughts, to thinking outside of the box.”

Chambliss is a PhD student in creative arts/medicine under an International Postgraduate Research Scholarship at University of Melbourne, Australia. To contact Jim Chambliss for more information, email him at

Edited by Steven C. Schachter, MD, January 20, 2008

Description of Puzzled by Jim Chambliss
PUZZLED, (2005)
Ceramics and digital media, 36” x 31” x 19”

Everyone can relate to the complexity and frustration of trying to resolve a Rubik’s Cube. Most never complete the puzzle, even enough to resolve one of the six sides of the whole. Some have discarded or destroyed the cubes all together. Some have taken off the stickers to put them back to superficially look as though the puzzle had been resolved. Few complete the puzzle. Those who do often don’t remember how it was accomplished.

Resolving the complex puzzle of how my brain is injured, functions and may be cured is almost overwhelming when you think of the brain as having some 200 billion nerve cells and a trillion supporting cells. This makes it virtually impossible to fully understand the exact details and mapping of an individual’s brain functioning in the complex combinations of neurological interaction used to create a work of art. We can, however, see patterns within science, psychology, history and visual art that can bring us somewhat closer to resolution. This sculpture implies the movement of corresponding puzzle pieces in order to better understand the whole.

There are six scrambled sides of this puzzle. Each represents one of six primary elements of understanding the history, reality and theory of what happened to my brain.

  1. The red portion has a digital graphic of my face from a photo taken about 4 days after I had a seizure and fell on my face on December 13, 1998. I woke in the hospital with partial amnesia after the seizure and fall. I had to relearn many names. I had increased difficulty reading, writing, processing information, listing and with my emotions.
  2. The blue side maps out what were the cognitive functions and physical consequences of my brain injuries.
  3. The yellow side contains part of my painting Shadows of the Past (2002). It was one of my first paintings. It won a class award and was published in Visions: Artists Living with Epilepsy. It is one of the clues that I had developed an unusual and unexpected talent for art.
  4. The white side depicts the type of changes in writing that often occur with temporolimbic epilepsy. The writing samples are from people who are thought to have had epilepsy, like Michelangelo, Giorgio de Chirico and Vincent van Gogh.
  5. The orange section represents the artwork of current artists with epilepsy. We can review, study and compile the art, writing, experiences and personalities of current-day artists with epilepsy in order to better understand past, present and future artist with epilepsy.
  6. The green section contains scanned images of my EEG’s that demonstrate the location and frequency of abnormal brain waves from electrical misfiring in my brain. This graphic depicts my exploration of whether the areas my seizure focus might overlap with the regions where the brain is demonstrated through a SPECT scan to be most active in another artist during the process of making an abstract drawing. This is part of an extensive effort to resolve the puzzle of why my thinking I became so much more visual and creative after a brain injury that caused epilepsy.

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