December 2000 Bulletin

Creative spirit lives in ‘ortho-artists’

e-Motion art exhibit will tell ‘story’ of orthopaedics

Richard Whitehall, MD, left, and Patrick R. Robins, MD, right,
practice half-time so they can create art work

By Sandra Lee Breisch

Many orthopaedic surgeons delight in working with their hands by creating sculpture, carving wooden designs or capturing moments in life with a fine sable brush or through the lens of a camera.

Take Richard B. Ressman, MD, who’s been shooting black and white photography for more than 30 years–more time than he’s spent in practice. "For me, photography captures light and shadow, moments in the flow of life, and culture in the ephemeral," he says.

Back in 1968, Dr. Ressman turned his 8 foot x 11 foot intern’s call room into a darkroom. And things haven’t changed. In his Chicago, Ill. loft, he built a darkroom out of a walk-in closet. On one wall hangs 400 photographs that include everyone from Michael Jordan to Pope John Paul II, from Jack Nicholson to Tina Turner, plus famous buildings such as Marina Towers in Chicago and the Sidney Opera House in Australia.

Another photo gallery can be found at Dr. Ressman’s office; it’s a vehicle he uses to build rapport with patients. "It [my hobby] helps my patients see a different aspect of me–that there’s more to me than just the person who’s treating them," he explains. "And it allows me to open up emotionally about things other than orthopaedic surgery."

Dr. Ressman is just one of many talented orthopaedists who submitted slides of his artwork for eMotion Pictures: An Exhibition of Orthopaedics in Art. It is the Academy’s first juried art exhibition–open to orthopaedists and their patients. The exhibition tells the story of musculoskeletal conditions and the burden of disease through artistic creations in various media. The art exhibit supports the goals of the Bone and Joint Decade in promoting a positive, caring image of orthopaedists and fosters and rebuilds the patient/physician relationship.

Artwork submitted by patients reflects their feelings about an orthopaedic condition and/or feelings about their relationship with their specialist.

If Dr. Ressman is one of the winners in selected media categories, his artwork will be displayed at the Herbst International Exhibition Hall on the Presidio’s Main Post in San Francisco, from Feb. 19-March 23, 2001. The exhibit will be during the AAOS Annual Meeting from Feb. 28-March 4 and may be shown in other cities, too.

The exhibit also will be open to the public. A "virtual" gallery of artwork will appear on the Academy’s web site.

Pleased at the turnout of almost 1,300 entries from patients and orthopaedists representing 17 countries and 43 states, S. Terry Canale, MD, AAOS president says, "We should’ve known it was going to be a success because orthopaedists and patients around them are talented with their hands." Dr. Canale also has submitted artwork to the exhibition.

To simply say that many orthopaedists take their hobby seriously is an understatement. For many, their hobby is a vocation that often leads to a perfect retirement niche.

Recently retired, Leonard Gerstein, MD, takes pride in handing out his business card. It reads "Len’s Wood Creations, Skill of a Surgeon — Heart of an Artist."

I’ve been in practice for 30 years, but a woodworker for 50 years–ever since I was a little kid, found a knife and began to whittle," says the Santa Cruz, Calif. Orthopaedist, who also carves and sculpts in other media. He has won and placed in art competitions, but says, "This is wonderful opportunity for me to enter an art contest because I will be doing woodworking full-time now. I just opened a sculpture studio with another sculptor. It’s a very nice way to start that life."

One of his entries is a sculpture of a total knee replacement that includes a surgeon’s hands. It is carved in a pepper tree wood. "The emotional aspects of the carving is not just one of the total knee, but the joy the surgeon gets when the total knee replacement fits and moves perfectly," he explains. "That’s why the hands are incorporated in the sculpture."

Leonard Gerstein, MD, entered a carving of a total knee replacement in the eMotion exhibit

A "divine calling" to create steel sculptures came for Richard Whitehill, MD, in 1993 after watching welders build the support structure for the University of Virginia Hospital. "The process of joining ‘I’ beams just preyed on my mind," he says.

Soon, this spine surgeon in Charlottesville, Va. enrolled in a basic welding class with 12 other men in the construction industry and one radio minister. "I was petrified because I was the only doctor there," he recalls. "The teacher was a hardcore welder and just humiliated me."

Dr. Whitehill was determined to get an A-plus in class. He used rebar to build a stick figure of a man doing the Tango. "The teacher liked it, but in order to secure the A-plus, I also bought him a gallon of Wild Turkey," he adds.

And, yes, he made the grade.

One of Dr. Whitehill’s entries for the eMotion exhibit is entitled, "Hip Biomechanics," a steel rendition of a free body diagram of the hip joint. "Like all other orthopaedic residents, I learned how to calculate the joint reaction force within the hip joint as being several times body weight," he says.

He set up shop in his red barn in 1993 and has created approximately 50 life-size sculptures that include a golfer, baseball batter, karate kicker, diver and ballerina.

Since July, he’s been working half-time in orthopaedics so he can devote the other time to welding. "I was looking for another way to interact with people that was happier than having to walk in and say, ‘I’ve stabilized your son’s spine–but he’s never going to walk again,’" explains Dr. Whitehill. "When I build a piece of sculpture for someone and it really clicks, you can see it on their face."

After 27 years of practice, 59-year-old Patrick R. Robins, MD, of Missoula, Mont. is going half-time too because of his vocation. Even though he is still the medical director of orthopaedics at St. Patrick’s Hospital, he stresses, "I can still do that and my artwork."

His specialty: bronze sculptures. "I submitted a sculpture [to the eMotion exhibit] that portrayed some of the despair of a patient with scoliosis," says Dr. Robins, whose mother developed scoliosis. "I guess there could be some sort of connection between my emotional feelings with scoliosis and creating this piece," he says. "Art is very important to me and an outlet for creativity and recreation."

Dr. Robin’s path to the welding profession was paved at an early age. His father was a welder who taught him and his brothers how to weld before they left high school. "I paid my way through medical school as a welder," he says.

And Dr. Robins hopes the eMotion exhibit continues. "It showed me a lot of foresight in the Academy for their interest in art produced by physicians and how it reflects their feelings toward their specialty," he says. "Many orthopaedists love to work with their hands and are very artistic."

"The good thing about my artwork is it’s similar to what orthopaedics is," explains J. Lee Berger, MD, an artist for 20 years and an orthopaedist for 17. He specializes in acrylics and watercolor painting. His artwork has been displayed and sold in galleries, but all the money from sales went toward charitable donations. The Fairlawn, N.J. physician says orthopaedics allows "you to show off your work after you’ve done a total joint or knee replacement, fixation of fractures or joint work because you can take a photo or X-ray of your work. And this is similar to what you do in art. People are able to express their feelings through their art and you always have a permanent memory of what you did. You can save your work, you can show it off."

His entries for the eMotion exhibit are two acrylic paintings of "Clover’s hips," a 72-year-old patient who had a bilateral total hip replacement. "After this patient came to my art showing, she asked, ‘Could you draw my hips?’" explains Dr. Berger. "After I did the painting, I gave it to her and she keeps it at home. Then when I heard about the Academy’s art exhibit having to do with orthopaedics, I kind of laughed.

A patient's bilateral total hip replacements is the subject of a painting by J. Lee Berger, MD

I called my patient, Clover, and asked her for permission to show my painting. But it belongs to my patient and I would never sell it."

E. Jeff Justis Jr. MD, still owns and uses the very first power tool that he got as a 10-year-old. "It’s 57 years ago that I got the jigsaw and made model airplanes, little decorative coasters–that sort of thing," says the Memphis, Tenn. hand surgeon. "I really like to carve wood and I like what the hand can do."

One of Dr. Justis’ woodcarvings called "The Touch," is a full-sized carving of two hands in basswood and walnut. "The emotional meaning is that it’s patterned after the hands of God and Adam in the Sistine Chapel," he explains. "It’s carved in such a way that the hand of God has full veins and the hand of Adam doesn’t have any to speak of–it just shows the life-giving force."

"The Touch" by E. Jeff Justis Jr., MD, is one of the 1,300 entries in the exhibit.

He makes it perfectly clear that his hobby is his "very first" profession. "I guess it means more to me than anything and medicine came as a result of my interest in woodworking," says Dr. Justis, who works only one day a week in orthopaedics.

One reason an orthopaedist might turn to art would be to improvise. This would be the case of Laurence E. Dahners, MD, of Chapel Hills, N.C. "My office was recently remodeled and I had an electrical plate that needed something to cover it up," he explains. "I thought that if it was going in my office it ought to have something to do with orthopaedics. And the best thing I came up was when I was in the OR taking pictures of some of the orthopaedists and residents while they were trying to salvage a patient’s arm afflicted with cancer. I thought it would make a good acrylic painting and I submitted it for the exhibition."

A photo of a surgery became the subject of a painting by Laurence E. Dahners, MD.

What began as "doodling" for Craig C. Newland, MD, a hand surgeon in Liberty, Mo., evolved into an oil painting of Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong holding his baby. However, Dr. Newland painted over the image, creating a scene of a man falling down. It became his entry: "The spirit catches you and you fall down."

This painting technique, "enhances the artistic process for me," says Dr. Newland. "If there was a way to have an X-ray to identify the image beneath, it would somehow be relevant to what we do because we are constantly referencing X-rays to reveal something that is unrevealed," Dr. Newland explains.

Sleep deprivation put John E. Fortune, MD, into a creative mode in 1989. Back then–as a resident in a busy trauma center–he discovered that the external fixation frames he used to reconstruct complex skeletal lesions had "a functional simplicity and mechanical logic," to them. And they were also perfect for artwork.

So, with a collection of surplus external fixator components, he built his very first model called "The universal limb salvage frame." "I built it to honor a faculty member, Donald A. Wiss, MD, who really impressed me with his attitude, skill, knowledge and judgment," explains the 42-year-old San Jose, Calif. orthopaedist. "The model reflects his specialty interest in polytrauma. It’s a multiply comminuted femur fracture with segmental bony defects."

Since then, Dr. Fortune has built four models as a tribute to his orthopaedic mentors–all submitted to the contest. For example, "Lizard rods," is a tribute to David R. Godley, MD. "It’s an Ilizarov fixator frame with segmentally lengthened reptile," he says. "The artwork represents my relationship between my teachers and myself, as a student. They’ve all had a significant impact on me in my career as a caregiver, surgeon and a person. And this [artwork] is a way for me to honor them."

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