Reassembling through Art | Dayton City Paper

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A trajectory of recovery through 1000 splatter paintings

Artwork: “Infarct lll #1”

By Stephanie Tyson

Splashes of bright and pastel yellows, transparent yet brilliant reds, purples, blues, and oranges dance like sparks as they fall within the valleys and exposed channels of corrugated cardboard, a result of deconstruction and reassembling of a material that is traditionally overlooked as a simple storage or delivery medium, much like a neuron. A partial image of a screen printed left vertebral artery sneaks in from the side of the 12” x 12” piece numbered #286, mimicking the form of a swaying tree. It echoes the experience of a brain stem stroke and everything that came after, physically and mentally. The piece that was gifted to me before I conducted the interview is only one of what is expected to be a series of a thousand, named aptly “Stem/ReAssemblage”.

Tom Watson lll is a local Dayton area artist and a stroke (and recently cancer) survivor who has had exhibitions at Studio Blue Salon on Brown Street and at the restaurant Christopher’s in Kettering. Although his stroke happened nearly 10 years ago during a graphic design critique while in his last year of getting his Bachelor of Fine Arts at the University of Dayton, it definitely didn’t stop him. If getting a brain stem stroke did anything to Tom, it functioned to inspire him to make more art. Needless to say, it wasn’t an easy thing to experience.

Tom went on to describe to me how he was sitting in class in 2005 right before spring break as his professor began to critique this final project for a graphic design class. He began to feel numbness in his right arm and leg. His professor was looking at all the work pinned up on the wall and when he turned around after asking if he was going to contribute noticed that he was having muscle spasms and his back was arching.

“It was an amazing experience. Scary as hell but, I’m glad I went through it because I did survive and it did add something positive to my life. It took me quite a while to say something like that but I strongly believe it. There’s a lot of good that came out of it.”

After the slim chance of survival, Tom worked hard to regain things he took for granted, like walking. When one has a stroke, regions of brain cells die. However, the brain can make new paths in the synapses to recover what was lost. Starting from basically zero, Tom had to learn to walk again, and from wheelchair to crutches to walking normally again in his early 30s, it’s amazing to think that he had a full recovery. Even though it may have been quite a tragic experience, he finished his BFA the following year.

Tom says he has collected all his brain scans and medical imaging and uses it to make art. One of his hand screen printed t-shirt designs, for example, uses the image of the vertebral artery where the blood clot happened, a shape that one of his sons has called “Daddy’s Tree”. His t-shirt line is named “Stem and Left Hemisphere”. His intaglio etching piece, “Arch #1”, when his muscles began to spasm and his back began to arch is representative of his experience of the stroke in situ and the concept of being out of body but locked in it at the same time. Another reoccurring concept in his pieces is the idea of recycling and reconstructing, much like the decay of his brain cells during the stroke and the rebuilding of neural pathways that occurred during recovery.

With his Jackson Pollock inspired splatter paintings on torn down and reassembled cardboard being his project, “Stem/ReAssemblage”, and his goal of completing one thousand of these pieces hopefully within two years, Tom has entered in what he has called “donation mode”. This series which began in late 2006, only about a year after the near-death experience and of which now over 700 have been completed are part of a plan to give. In the past, pieces have been donated to a cancer charity, the Neurology Now magazine and DVAC’s annual art auction. His actions did not go unnoticed by the National Stroke Association and he was presented with an “Outstanding Individual Award” for 2011. A forthcoming plan to donate to local hospitals and possibly schools that Tom is alumni of are being thought out. The Kettering Health Network is having a silent auction with a stroke awareness concept in the near future where a couple of pieces will be donated to as well.

“Stem/ReAssemblage” has been such an extended project that as a whole it’s almost as if the project has been there throughout Tom Watson lll’s entire recovery, and continues to be as it still is being worked on. As he applies the paint he physically releases the pain he went through and even some of the distress that still persists, physically and internally.  Differences in color palettes, size, and persistent interests in certain approaches have resulted in “series within the series” and if one could amass all of them up until this point, they would surely function as a type of documentation of the self-prescribed art therapy that is “Stem/ReAssemblage”.

If you are interested in more information about Tom Watson lll and his life as a stroke, cancer survivor and artist, follow his Facebook page:

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