"Soldier, Sister, Savant" tells de Avila's story and the arrival of acquired savant syndrome.
Even though they’ve spent hundreds of hours working together on “Soldier, Sister, Savant,” writer Wilma Davidson and artist Diana de Avila aren’t sick of each other yet.
“I told Wilma that she has to quit having birthdays, so I can catch up with her,” de Avila said. “Because we have a lot to do.”
The pair of friends has already accomplished something big together: On Sept. 8, they released de Avila’s biography, “Soldier, Sister, Savant.” Through de Avila’s art and Davidson’s careful writing on de Avilia's behalf, it tells the story of de Avila’s life from her time in the military, to her motorcycle crash, to her eventual awakening as an acquired savant.
Davidson, a Longboat Key resident, and de Avila, a Parrish resident, met through the Sarasota chapter of the National League of American Pen Women, an organization that gathers female artists in art, music and writing. The pair just clicked when Davidson in her role as group president, interviewed de Avila to bring her into the club.
“We started talking and we started working together,” Davidson said. “We were like of one mind. It was like we could read each other's minds like lightning. We still do. As she started to share her story with me, I said, ‘The story needs to be told.’ And she said, ‘I know. People keep telling me that.’ ”
De Avila’s story starts back in 1984, when she was in the military and had a motorcycle accident. The immediate focus was on saving her legs, though the force of the crash cracked her helmet. She had symptoms that were ultimately diagnosed as those of multiple sclerosis.
But it was in 2017, while relaxing by a pool, that she experienced a life-changing moment. Suddenly, shapes and colors popped into her head.
“I came home from the hospital and I felt really amped up (from the MS treatment) and I was doing my taper of steroids,” de Avila said. “I was out by the pool and the shapes and colors came. And once it started it never stopped.”
She also has synesthesia, which is a condition in which senses get confused. For de Avila, that means that colors have sounds, and in many cases, her art was coming to her in the same way her brain was processing her synesthesia. When she had her awakening, there was a need to create. She worked with computers, so the manner of creation was an instinct too.
“I had designed web pages and stuff, but the graphic art thing was not really my thing,” de Avila said. “After spending several hundred dollars at Hobby Lobby on brushes and paints and then trying to do it by hand in real time ... I wasn't advancing. I took my mother's advice. She said, ‘Maybe you should focus on the digital.’ I could accomplish what I wanted to on a digital format. I downloaded Adobe Illustrator, and Photoshop and just started with some of those.”
Since de Avila’s “awakening” in 2017, she has created more than 1,000 pieces of digital art. She now creates NFTs, non-fungible tokens that she said are a great format for her digital generative art.
“That's how my digital art has morphed and I found a great group of collectors,” de Avila said. “This is the geeky group that understands my generative art, my algorithmic art, my fractal art. I do use over 100 programs, probably closer to 200 (for my art).”
As they were creating the book, de Avila was focused on the art to include, the layout and even the type of paper it would ultimately be printed on. On Davidson’s side of things, she was focused on capturing de Avila’s voice. The book is written in first person, so Davidson had a tall order in effectively stepping into de Avila’s shoes to tell her story. Luckily, their friendship made it easier.
“There was a lot of mutual trust and we had mutual admiration, and that's important,” Davidson said. “We had stick-to-it-iveness. I didn't have to face as much adversity as she did, but we've each had our issues and somehow we bounce back. I have such admiration for her. The world needs to know this woman.”
Davidson has been a writer most of her life, but mostly wrote academic and journalistic material before this. Still, she was well prepared to bring her research skills to the table. De Avila sent Davidson pages and pages of notes from her army days, her awakening, thoughts on her art and insight from doctors she’s seen throughout her life. Davidson contacted experts in the area about acquired savant syndrome and added that into the book as well. There was a good amount of information from Dr. Berit Brogaard and Dr. Darold Treffert, who had recognized de Avila’s art as that of a savant.
“I'm a researcher, so I just had to find out everything I could that was known about it,” Davidson said. “Every day, (de Avila and I were) just on that phone … When I would write some part, I'd send it to her. And I'd say, ‘Tell me if I've captured you.’ That was to me the most important thing. And she would say, ‘Gosh, every time I read this, it brings me back there.’”
Davidson and de Avila filled gaps in each other’s talents to bring the book to completion, and now that they’re finished, they’re proud to look back on what they’ve accomplished in telling de Avila’s story. Davidson wrote her first book and de Avila now has upcoming gallery presentations to look forward to. They may not stop there, though — de Avila has more she wants to say, and Davidson is happy to be the writer.
Join the Neighborhood! Our 100% local content helps strengthen our communities by delivering news and information that is relevant to our readers. Support independent local journalism by joining the Observer's new membership program — The Newsies — a group of like-minded community citizens, like you. Be a Newsie.