Evanston’s brush with death

Scott Gordon

Evanston’s brush with death

A conference on near-death experiences features a local doctor’s artwork

By Scott Gordon

The Summer Northwestern

They went to the edge of death … and then they came to Evanston.

The International Association for Near Death Studies held its annual conference last week at the Best Western University Plaza Hotel, 1501 Sherman Ave. The conference officially began Thursday morning and ended Saturday evening.

This year’s conference theme was “Creativity from the Light.” About 30 speakers throughout the event addressed the effects of near-death experiences on creativity. IANDS president Janice Holden said this issue often isn’t addressed directly in near-death studies.

“Near-death experiencers often come back with the ability and the motivation to develop some ability that they didn’t have before,” she said in an interview Thursday. This phenomenon is known, but usually only is mentioned as a side note in research articles like those published in IANDS’ quarterly Journal of Near-Death Studies.

According to Holden, IANDS has about 900 members worldwide. Most of these members are from the United States, but Friends of IANDS groups exist as far away as Hungary and Slovenia. Counting speakers about 300 people attended this year’s conference, Holden said.

During the opening ceremony Friday morning, Chicago IANDS facilitator Diane Willis exhibited the musical skills she said she’d gained after having a near-death experience in the spring of 1995. Willis had been a flute player before the experience, but afterward, she took to improvising melodies on the Native American flute. Accompanied by keyboardist John Fish, Willis delivered a series of mournful improvisations. Willis, of Wilmette, recently released a CD, “Improvisations from the Other Side: Healing Music for Meditation and Relaxation.”

Then Mayor Lorraine Morton addressed the conference briefly. She didn’t mention near-death experiences specifically, but said she wanted to thank IANDS for coming to Evanston. “I’d like to applaud this organization because this organization represents what Evanston is about: people helping people,” Morton told an audience of about 100 in the hotel’s main conference room.

Later that morning Dr. Robert Magrisso of Winnetka gave a lecture on the impact a near-death experience had on his artwork. Magrisso, who runs a private medical practice in Winnetka and oversees residents from Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine at Evanston Northwestern Hospital, has been an artist since his days in medical school. He said his spirituality has always had an influence on the collages and wood carvings he creates in his free time, and the near-death experience he had during a heart attack in August 1995 has provided him with additional inspiration.

Magrisso was exercising at NU’s Sports Pavilion and Aquatics Center on August 20, 1995, when he began to feel the weakness and chest pains that often precede heart attacks. He drove home, had his son call 911 and was taken to the Evanston Hospital emergency room. He said that while he went into cardiac arrest and doctors tried to resuscitate him, he suddenly found himself “in a completely different world,” feeling “a peace beyond peace.”

“It was more of a feeling state than a visual experience,” Magrisso, 57, told the conference audience. After recovering and leaving the hospital, he began to feel a sense of “the poverty of being a human being.”

During his presentation he showed slides of some of the artwork he’s been doing for about 30 years. Among the earlier works he showed was “Leap,” a collage from 1982 that places two pearl divers (photographed in National Geographic) floating in space.

Magrisso said he got interested in art during medical school, where he began doodling during lectures, then gradually started making collages.

“I felt I needed a spiritual method in order to meditate and help me with maintaining the values I had that I was afraid I was going to lose in medical school,” he said in an interview. After his experience, he also began making wood carvings and constructing other three-dimensional pieces. Magrisso sometimes attends IANDS events and lectures, but for the most part he purposely avoids reading or talking too much about near-death experiences.

“It is one of those kinds of experiences that it’s hard for me to fake the effect,” Magrisso explained to the audience at the beginning of his speech. “I don’t really like (talking about it) that much because it shakes me to the core.”

City Editor Scott Gordon is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]