Voices

The Verve: Josh Gillen’s mind keeps evolving

After suffering a brain injury, Josh Gillen is painting again. With a shunt in his head and vertigo, he is considered disabled and now he is free to paint full time. His work before the injury was intricate, almost mathematical. Now it’s slightly childish as he relearns how to paint again. (Colin Mulvany)
After suffering a brain injury, Josh Gillen is painting again. With a shunt in his head and vertigo, he is considered disabled and now he is free to paint full time. His work before the injury was intricate, almost mathematical. Now it’s slightly childish as he relearns how to paint again. (Colin Mulvany)

In November 2012, as Josh Gillen’s life was spiraling out of control, he looked up and asked for a sign.

Not long after, he felt wrong and went to the hospital. He doesn’t remember a lot.

“I think they thought I was hung-over but they kept me for observation,” he said. When they found him on the floor of his room, they gave him an MRI and found that his brain was bleeding and swelling.

During the next three months, a neurosurgeon drilled a hole in Gillen’s skull, removed a piece of it and placed a shunt in his head. The first two shunts failed but the third worked, and his brain got busy learning how to function again. He had to relearn many things including how to walk, shave and even breathe, but the experience was not all bad.

“I remember dreams and hallucinations,” he said, “My life was saved and changed in the process. I appreciate life more.”

When asked where he grew up, Gillen, 39, looked a little stunned – as if growing up was not an option.

“I grew up all over; my parents were kind of like gypsies,” he eventually answered.

His father was a jack-of-all-trades and his mother worked for the prison system. He spent much of his youth in California. He rode his skateboard a lot and dropped out of high school, earning a GED instead of a diploma. His father’s advice was simply to work hard. His first job was building trucks in a factory.

At 20, Gillen’s first child was born, and he began painting in earnest using acrylic paint or an airbrush on whatever he could find. His early paintings included geometrical and repetitive patterns swirling and moving across the canvas or wood; deep and almost otherworldly and slightly fractured studies of figures, eyes or hands, akin to crop circles, mechanical yet organic.

“My work has always been energy driven,” Gillen said. “It’s automatic as if the paint brush has a mind of its own; I blame the paint brush.”

In 2003, Gillen, with his wife and children, moved to the Spokane area. When his brain trauma occurred, he was working full-time as a foreman at a company that built mobile paper shredders. Now, he is medically retired.

“Besides my left side being numb and vertigo I feel fine,” he said, “The doctors can’t figure out why I’m not more physically messed up from this.”

Pre-brain trauma, Gillen would work all day and paint all night. Now, he paints all the time and watches television where he gets a lot of inspiration.

His paintings are different now as his brain continues to heal. His studies are less detailed and filled with commentaries like the piece of a starving child in Africa wearing a McDonald’s T-shirt.

He has exhibited his work sparingly and hopes to find a venue with an open mind in the near future, one that will not be bothered by the weird journey of his mind.



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