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alumni profiles

Jim Chambliss ’86 / Exploring the neurogenesis of creativity

Jim Chambliss ’86 was standing in a parking lot in Eagle County, Colo., in 1998 when he was blindsided by a sport utility vehicle. He wasn’t knocked down or unconscious, but that JIm Chamblissseemingly minor accident set his life on an entirely different course from the practice of law he was then pursuing.

Today, Chambliss is a permanent resident of another country—Australia—and is succeeding in a radically different career as a researcher, speaker, and Ph.D. candidate in creative arts and medicine at the University of Melbourne. Specifically, his scholarship explores the influence of epilepsy on the work of visual artists. It was stimulated by his personal experiences with epilepsy and his own art following the accident.

The story of his journey from attorney to artist and cutting-edge scholar in the esoteric realm of the neurogenesis of creative expression is captivating in its own right, and an excellent example of the value of a liberal arts degree from Transylvania.

“When I had to move laterally in my career, having a Transylvania education was good for me because I had such a broad background of knowledge to draw from,” Chambliss said.

Chambliss needed every bit of his higher education background, as well as a determined attitude, to negotiate the twists and turns of his life following the accident.

Before 1998, Chambliss had followed a fairly typical path for a Transylvania pre-law student graduating with a political science major and a history minor. He earned his juris doctor from the University of Denver College of Law in 1989, then practiced in the public and private sectors for the next decade. At the time of his accident, he was in private practice in Eagle County.

Doctors originally diagnosed the cerebral portion of Chambliss’s  injuries as a minor concussion, but following a series of unusual occurrences—false sensations of smells, going blank during a conversation, a sudden jerk of the hand—he took a bad fall as the result of an epileptic seizure that caused further brain damage, then wrecked his car after blacking out. It has taken him years to recover from the cognitive injuries.

Along the way, he left law, took a master’s in visual arts from the University of Louisville, and in 2006 accepted a generous fellowship to pursue a Ph.D. at Melbourne. He chose that university because of its willingness to be flexible in the creation of his doctoral subject, which involves the study of how epileptic activity in the brain can actually enhance, or even spark, creativity in visual art, including his own.

“My research is focused on the novelty of perception that comes from epileptic discharges during a complex partial seizure, where only a portion of the brain is impacted and you may not even see physical symptoms,” Chambliss said.

His research has involved the study of works by more than 100 artists with epilepsy, trying to discover if they experience intrinsic perceptions of the illusions or hallucinations brought about by the partial seizure, and if they incorporate those into their artwork. He looked at art from three contests, and overall has reviewed more than 8,000 artworks by people with epilepsy.

“It seems from the research that epilepsy, which is most often perceived as disabling, can, in some circumstances, be enabling for the enhancement of creative potential,” Chambliss said. “Epilepsy is not the only cause of someone’s creativity; it is just one of the factors, yet it can be a very significant one.”

Blindsided artwork
 Blindsided is a self-portrait ceramic artwork by Jim Chambliss ’86 that relates to his life-changing injury in 1998 as the result of being blindsided by a sport utility vehicle.

Chambliss’s work has caught the attention of the academic world. Among his recent speaking engagements was a presentation at the 2011 International Epilepsy Congress, held in Rome in August. He spoke in conjunction with Steven Schachter, a neurologist at the Harvard University Medical School.

“The Rome conference was phenomenal,” he said. “I shared the stage with one of the top neurologists in the world. Steven has been involved with my research project since 2005. I was so honored to be invited not just for a poster presentation or a question-and-answer, but to give one of the sessions.”

Chambliss has curated art shows, including one in Melbourne for 56 artists with epilepsy that he calls the largest of its kind ever held. This is one of the ways he feels his work is having a positive impact on these artists.

“There was an excitement level among these artists that was amazing,” he said. “For them to be able to share their experiences with family and friends was great. Along with exposure on my website, the show generated interest in their art for sales. That helps them to believe in themselves.”

After completing his Ph.D., Chambliss hopes to continue to build upon his research.

“I would like to have a combination of teaching associated with art, to work in research with various mental and neurological conditions and how they affect creativity, and to be associated with art collections. I would like to show the public the work of artists who are in some way marginalized, but whose work exhibits insights into the human condition.”

Chambliss lives in Melbourne with his wife, Nicola, son, Zac, 3, and daughter, Chloe Anna, 1.

—William A. Bowden

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