Exhibitionists·Video

After a stroke, Sheri Bakes lost the ability to visualize images but gained a new way of making art

Her condition — aphantasia — has inspired a new way of painting.

Her condition — aphantasia — has inspired a new way of painting

(CBC Arts)

Meditating has been important to painter Sheri Bakes for a long time. While at a retreat in Indonesia, she had a deeply profound reaction to the practice. And now, meditation is built into her artistic process in a different way. When she was 29, Bakes had a stroke that resulted in the loss of her ability to imagine things visually — a condition referred to as aphantasia. Now, her experience in Indonesia and the aftermath of her stroke have combined to transform her into the artist she is today.

When Bakes goes into the landscape that surrounds her home in Vancouver Island, she takes away photographs of the things she wants to paint. As you'll see in the video below, made by filmmaker Daniel Lins da Silva, these pictures become essential to her process. "I am internally blind, basically," says Bakes. "If I try and work without a photograph, I get lost. It's like I have no bearings, like I can't form shapes in my mind, like I can't form anything. So the photograph, it gives me a map to follow." See how Sheri Bakes paints her windswept landscapes in the video below.

Watch the video:

When Sheri Bakes lost her ability to use her visual imagination, she made her painting process into being in the moment. Filmmaker: Daniel Lins da Silva 4:52

While it might be tempting to see aphantasia as a challenge for Bakes, she has turned the process of painting into a meditative act. Once she knew she had the condition (she only found out in 2015), she gave up trying to get back a vision that was no longer accessible to her and worked on being in the moment. Now, she says that her job is to "dissolve herself" — to get out of her own way and use herself as a vehicle for whatever she is trying to express.

Bakes is not the only artist with aphantasia — earlier this year, an exhibition at the University of Glasgow featured work by people who are not able to visualize (they also featured works by people with hyperphantasia or an overactive visual imagination).

You can see more of Sheri Bakes's work here.

(Sheri Bakes)
(Sheri Bakes)
(Sheri Bakes)

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About the Author

Lise Hosein is a producer at CBC Arts. Before that, she was an arts reporter at JazzFM 91, an interview producer at George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. When she's not at her CBC Arts desk she's sometimes an instructor at OCADU and is always quite terrified of bees.