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Perceptions of Creative Genius: Impetus for Innovation and Collaboration

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Monday, May 22, 2017 - 12:30

Caitlin Hoffman, MD
Assistant Professor of Neurological Surgery

The link between an Antiguan painter and a New York neurosurgeon seems unlikely at best, but life does have a way of making some rather extraordinary connections. I was recently introduced to the work of Frank Walter (1926-2009), whose paintings represent Antigua and Barbuda in the 2017 Venice Biennale. This is the first time the island nation has had a place in the biennial art exposition, which opened last week. Dr. Barbara Paca’s discovery of Walter’s work catalyzed not only recognition of his compositions and talent, but also opened doors of discovery into Antigua’s rich potential and its need to improve the quality of life for its people, and stimulated powerful collaborations to work toward this achievement.

One of those collaborations is with Weill Cornell Medicine Neurological Surgery. Our combined efforts support and utilize local resources through education and infuse sustainable external resources to improve local health care and quality of life. Our initial collaboration involved participating in Epilepsy Week at the Mount St. John’s Hospital to help diagnose and create sustainable treatment plans for children with seizure disorders. This seed has grown to encompass an initiative to create a Women and Children’s Hospital with multidisciplinary resources and care. It is truly amazing what can stem from the sparks of artistic representations of a nation’s vibrant beauty as well as its struggles and pain, given life by one man’s vivid vision and his honesty in its portrayal.

To focus on the current physical manifestation of this serendipitous discovery, my friend Dr. Barbara Paca – art historian, landscape architect, philanthropist, and cultural envoy to Antigua – has just published a book about the artist: Frank Walter, The Last Universal Man, 1926-2009.Having first provided the grant that supported our medical mission to Antigua last fall, Dr. Paca provided me with the additional gift of an introduction to Walter’s inspiring work, with an invitation to contribute an essay to the book. 

Walter has been alternately called brilliant, eccentric, deluded, and visionary, and is thought to have suffered from schizophrenia and was thus ostracized from a society he sought to illuminate. As is the case with most creative genius, his talent was under-appreciated and his motives and inner world were misunderstood during his lifetime.

Watch a PBS video on the Frank Walter exhibit at the Venice Biennale:


Dr. Paca sought not only to expose his art, but also to explore his mind through recordings of their conversations and investigation of a several-thousand-page-long manifesto. Beyond this, her inclusion of many perspectives on this body of work as a window into the mind of Frank Walter provides a unique and comprehensive look at the power of creative genius. Her book promises to restore Frank Walter to his place in the history of art, and I’m honored to have been a part of the project. An excerpt from my essay appears below.

From my essay in Frank Walter, The Last Universal Man, 1926-2009:

There is a strong history of "creative genius" associated with perceived mental illness — a confounding interpretation, as most unique and substantial contributions are associated with an element of uncovering and understanding things and worlds previously unexplored and newly discovered. One would expect these types of revelations, the works of creative masterminds, to emanate from a dimension of reality that is not commonly perceived. As was well articulated by Mr. Walter, “The world is not visually conscious to the normal mind, but abnormality is not necessarily always undesirable.”

While psychiatrists and neuroscientists ascribe the behavior and thought processes demonstrated by Mr. Walter to an imbalance of neurotransmitters and receptors, the resultant capacity for exploration of other dimensions of both the physical world and one’s own mind confers astounding potential for new creation, new thought, new perspective. The works of Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gosch, Adolf Wolfe, Heinrich Muller, Ralph Blakelock, Peter Green, Syd Barrett, and Charles Bolden all emanated from mentally “altered” states labeled as psychotic or schizophrenic. All of their work presented new angles, new media, and new use of content, light, shadow, or sound to physically represent their inner world.

Read the full essay here
More about the Venice Biennale
More about Frank Walter, The Last Universal Man