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After suffering aneurysms, artist Siike Donnelly fights to remember how to draw

by Alana Rinicella | Off-Ramp

Graphic artist Siike Donnelly, 32, is a multiple aneurysm survivor. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Thirty-two-year-old graphic novelist Siike Donnelly wants to redefine himself, but he can’t really remember the first 25 years of his life. Several brain aneurysms have left him with lasting memory damage and a new life to adjust to. 

The first aneurysm ruptured one night at dinner. He stepped out for some air when his friend found him flat on the ground.

"As far as I know, it felt like a grenade going off in my head. And it felt like dying," Siike says. "But I don’t remember it." 

Donnelly suffered the most damage to his temporal lobe, where visual memory is located. That means it's for him to hold onto images, even after seeing something moments ago. For example: if you asked him what an apple looked like, he could describe it to you, but no image would come up in his head — that makes it difficult to draw.

"Closing my eyes and seeing something in my head — I can’t," he says. "It’s just darkness…literally blindness when I close my eyes."

Since then five other aneurysms have formed in Siike’s head, but doctors caught them before they ruptured.

For Siike, life is more like "Groundhog Day" than "Memento." He can create new memories but the visuals don’t stick. Initially he relied on a white board for clues. Crucial facts about his life—his name, who his mother is—were reduced to bullets points.

RELATED: Siike Donnelly guests on Dan Harmon's podcast "Harmontown"

These days, Siike lives by routine. He does the same thing at the same time every day. His neurologist said the routine will help repair his memory. But maintaining it's a daily struggle.

"Day to day life can be extremely frustrating, even with a routine because now that it is a routine, when something throws you off-track, it affects you even more," Siike says.

The first rupture severely damaged his long-term memory. Events from when he was younger became hard to recall — his mom took it pretty hard.

"Going through a photo book affected her, because every mom, when they look at you, they see the six-year-old, they see the eight-year-old," Siike says. "She wants to reminisce of all these times that make her happy and now I can’t share those moments with her."

After finding a steady job, Siike got to work on Solestar, his first ever widely published graphic novel. It follows a man who gained superpowers in the wake of Hiroshima. Among the powers he gets—he learns the exact day he’ll die. So he decides to start converting his enemies to good.

Siike assembled 72 artists to draw the ninety-six-page comic. You'll see work by "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtlesco-creator Kevin Eastman, "Simpsons" illustrator Bill Morrison. Profits from the comic benefitted the Brain Aneurysm Foundation. In just under a week, he raised $10,000 through Kickstarter to fund the comic.

(Solestar cover art by Bill Morrison)

So, did Siike's condition bring him attention he wouldn’t otherwise have gotten—did the aneurysms make him a published author?

Donnelly says he likes to think that would've happened anyway, but he adds that the accident made him a better artist. Before the rupture, he said, his art was darker and more disturbing. Now he focuses on the beauty of human complexity.

His latest graphic novel follows a robot as he searches for his soul. By creating art, the robot learns what it means to be human.

To read more about Siike's work and download previews of his comics, visit his website.

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