Alyson Vega, 52, was eating dinner with her family when she suddenly was overwhelmed by pain in her head. She had been experiencing other symptoms, including numbness on the left side of her face and an inability to feel or taste food on that side of her tongue. But it was that night at dinner when she realized something might be seriously wrong. “That scared me on top of the other symptoms that I had been experiencing, so I finally went [to my family doctor],” she says. Over the course of about a week, the numbness trickled down her body, and she began stumbling and falling. She had, she later learned, experienced a mini stroke.
Her family doctor referred Vega to a neurologist who diagnosed her with cavernous angioma, a blood vessel abnormality, after noticing a mass on her MRI. It was February 28, 2007 and Vega, a petite woman with a bluntly cut brown bob, was hours away from visiting her daughter at college when the doctor called to say, “Get yourself to the emergency room.” That mass turned out to be a tumor, and Vega was scheduled for brain surgery two weeks later.
The surgery changed Vega’s life forever. She had made her living for 22 years as a math teacher, but found could no longer do math as well as before. Nor could she read as well. Her personality changed and she found she had lost her ability to read social cues. Many friends distanced themselves from her, post-surgery. “I think it’s hard for people to be around someone who’s not gonna get better,” she says. The loss of her career was devastating and pushed Vega into nervous breakdown. Vega’s career had allowed her to rise above the poverty she had endured as a child; she was one of four children and when her father quit his steady job as a professor to become a writer, the family income declined precipitously. As a child, she witnessed her mother write a bad check while shopping for groceries and wondered if her parents didn’t understand how banks worked. “That made me realize that I wanted to learn how banks work,” she says, and led to her career teaching math – an impossibility in her post-surgery life.
At the same time, brain surgery triggered a compulsion to create objects that even she had trouble understanding. One of her earlier projects was an old shoebox that she had covered with lint, old sweaters and acrylic paint. No particular reason why, she says — she just got the urge to do it. She found her creation so grotesque that she placed it on the scaffolding outside of her apartment and set it on fire. She then doused it with water and left it outdoors for weeks. However, no gust of wind, rainstorm, or even fire was strong enough to rid her of it, so she eventually brought it back inside. She took another look at it, and while she was still confused by the odd thing, she couldn’t bring herself to toss it out. “It was kind of amazing,” Vega says of the shoebox. “It was this strange, beautiful, damaged thing.” She’s been creating intriguing one-of-a-kind pieces ever since.
Lying on a rack at Fountain House Gallery tightly wrapped in plastic and nestled between two other canvases, is another of Vega’s creations, a large stitched collage, titled “Pieces of My Pier.” It consists of fabrics in muted tones and various photographs of a broken down pier in Turks and Caicos that she visited right before the surgery. Some of the images on “Pieces of My Pier” are actual photographs sewn together, while others are photographs printed on fabric, all blended together seamlessly. In the first row and fourth column of the collage is a swirl of blue, red, yellow and green. From a distance, it looks like a small island surrounded by water, but up close, it resembles a CAT scan of the brain. “After my surgery, I became obsessed with the brain and the nervous system,” Vega recalled.
Vega’s interest in all things neurological is also evident in a fabric postcard challenge that she did for Quilting Arts Magazine in July 2007. The cover postcard combines a blurry hospital scene of doctors hovering over her bleeding brain with a map of Turks and Caicos. The caption reads, “What about my vacation?” A second postcard reads, “Wish you weren’t here?” referring to her tumor. The second postcard is Vega at the beach looking back at a sailboat with a scalpel for a sailing mast that’s looming in the background. The scalpel, of course, represented her tumor. She didn’t have a photo of herself to use as reference, so she altered one of her daughter.
Though Vega’s work often includes a great deal of detail, it is primarily inspired by emotional impulses. For example, “Look, Don’t See!” a painting that she created after having an upsetting conversation with her mother, combines acrylic paint and Vega’s signature stitching, and features a little girl staring out of a broken window. The dark background and slouched body language of the girl express her sadness, while the bright and messy border surrounding the painting, formed from pieces of an antique quilt, at once gives it a very intimate feeling and reminds the viewers of their distance from the girl.
The little girl is a self-portrait of Vega based on a photo taken during the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty initiative. The figure of the little girl recurs throughout Vega’s work; for instance, in “Urban Decay,” the girl is plastered on a gritty door as a poster. The same girl is depicted looking out of a train window on a large mural currently on display at Fountain House Gallery. Vega suspects the girl signifies her trapped inner child. “The part of me that I can feel but can’t see,” she says.
That inaccessible aspect may refer back to Vega’s pre-surgery self. “I don’t have a skill to contribute to society anymore,” she says. “It’s like I don’t belong unless I’m able to give this.” What Vega does know is that she is enjoying this new chapter of her life. “I don’t have any delusion that being an artist is my profession; it’s not,” she says with a hint that despite the satisfaction she still misses structure. She describes her creations as foster kittens that are only meant to be hers only temporarily. “I’m nurturing them and loving them and taking care of them. But I want nothing more than for them to find a home,” she says.