Monday, April 20, 2015

The Practice of Painting

We veterinarians are lucky. We have some beautiful patients. For those who are artistically inclined, the animal world presents limitless inspiration. Veterinarians who are talented enough to act as double agents with a stethoscope in one hand and a paintbrush in the other are fascinating to me--a mix of a scientifically trained eye with an intuitive sense of color and balance. Veterinarian and painter Dr. John Fawcett is no exception and I was lucky enough to talk with him about his background, art, and inspirations.
"Two Champions" by John Fawcett, DVM
A DVM graduate from Iowa State University, John steadily built his own practice in Pennsylvania, where he worked for 20 years. "As a kid I always drew. It was a hobby and I just always really liked it," says John. "But I never thought it would be anything more than a hobby."

Understandably, during vet school and later as a solo practitioner, there was little time for painting. A common theme with vets who seek the creative side while practicing, time is the limiting commodity. Prior to hiring associates, John tried to find time to paint in the evenings. "It was a release, more of a relaxation to help relieve stress from the practice."

As his practice grew, John was able to carve increasing amounts of time out of his schedule to pursue his artistic passion. With his wife, John visited a western art show in Arizona. "I was completely enthralled with the genre of western art, which I didn't know a whole lot about at the time," John says. "I pursued that theme and it grew to the point where I got in an invitational show and I got in a gallery. I painted more and more because I got excited about it. I became very passionate about it and it was taking up as much of my free time as I could spare while I was still practicing. It became such that I thought that I really couldn't get any better as an artist unless I put more time into it. So I had to decide if this was going to be just a hobby or more of a vocation for me."
"The Looking Glass" by John Fawcett, DVM
Enter the pivot point: to remain where you are, doing what you've always done (and are good at) or to take a leap of faith to pursue your true passion, which is not without its risks. To remain comfortable and content or to step outside the boundary of your comfort zone for a chance at something with far greater internal reward. Examining character at such a point can illuminate a universe of things about that character. This is not saying leave your vet career for something potentially more illustrious. This is not implying a value or judgement on those who are able to choose, or on what they choose. This is examining something as small as and yet as large as a single life choice.

John explains beautifully how he made his:

"I talked to my stepfather who was a recently retired physician. I was having a hard time trying to decide what I wanted to do. I had built this successful practice and did I just want to throw that all away? But I was so passionate about my artwork. My stepfather posed a question to me that decided my career then. He asked: when you're painting do you think about veterinarian medicine? And I said: no. And he asked: when you're doing surgery, do you think about art? And I said: yes, all the time. So he said, well, there's your decision right there."

So John sold his practice and became a full time painter.

Is this sort of decision easy? Of course not. "To tell you the truth, I had real guilt feelings after I sold my practice because I thought that I wasn't really working. I enjoyed painting so much, it still felt like a hobby to me. It felt like I was just goofing off all the time, even though I was putting in as many hours as I was practicing."

Sometimes, all it takes is the sage observation of an objective spouse to set things right. "My wife kept telling me: this is your profession, get over it."
"Recent Visitors" by John Fawcett, DVM
"I kept my veterinary license for 4 years after I quit practicing," continues John. "I heard that Tammy Wynette was a beautician before she became a country singer and she held her beautician license because if she didn't make it big, she could always go back to being a hair dresser. In about 2000 I let my license lapse and the rest of course is history. I now paint full time and have around five galleries that represent me throughout the country. It worked out well. I'm very fortunate but it's not an easy thing. It's like jumping off a bridge."

As it turns out, a DVM degree is quite helpful when it comes to art. "I've said having a veterinary background is really the longest anatomy lesson an artist could ever have," says John. "Most of my paintings deal with figurative work whether it be humans or animals. I think the veterinary profession has helped me immensely as far as that goes. Horses are such complex animals. Even when I know what I know about their anatomy, they are really a difficult animal to paint and get everything right."
"Born to the Land" by John Fawcett, DVM
As John continues to paint in the genre of western art--the art he fell in love with at the Arizona art show years ago--he brings a story into each piece. His interest in history marries well with his subject matter. "I'm very much interested in history and the relationship of the horse with both the historic and contemporary working cowboy and the native Americans. The history of the horse in North America is fascinating to me."

In addition to his studio in Pennsylvania, John and his wife also have a ranch in Colorado. It's here, out west, where John gathers a lot of his inspiration. He's met local cowboys in the ranching community and has visited various historic ranches. John has also been introduced to Native Americans who have invited him into their tribes. He develops relationships with these people and their horses, and a story soon develops that is then re-created on canvas.
"To the Gate" by John Fawcett, DVM
"There are a lot of different facets to art," John explains. "It's not just picking up a brush and painting something you think is beautiful. To me, it's a history lesson, an anatomy lesson. It's something that can give you beauty as well as make you think about what's going on in the painting. It can be very involved with studying the piece from concept and ideas to the fruition of the painting."

If you cruise through John's collections of paintings, you'll notice predominantly equine watercolors and oils. Although many are in the western theme, there are other working horses exemplified--draft horses and racing horses, for example. In fact, John had the opportunity to paint the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner, Barbaro.
"The Unbeaten Barbaro" by John Fawcett
"I just wanted the opportunity to paint such a magnificent animal," says John. "His owners and I came up with the idea that I would do two paintings, a watercolor and an oil, and they would be auctioned at the Thoroughbred Charities of America (TCA) Auction in Lexington at a fundraiser. The TCA benefits retired racehorses and retired jockeys. This gave me an opportunity to paint a beautiful, strong animal."
"Barbaro" by John Fawcett
John's connections then led him to paint Breeder's Cup winners. "I love painting Thoroughbreds," he says. "But also draft horses, Indian ponies, whatever. They are different types of equine paintings but they are still from the same structure. I'm fascinated with anything equine, really."

As John's artistic talents continue to evolve and improve, some of his works feature greater detail and the capacity to tell a story increases exponentially as a result. "Painting is the same as anything," he says to me. "You're a writer. So it's the same thing that you go through." Idea, research, draft, end product. It's more than a little comforting to realize that the creative process is similar no matter what the format or end product.

Stay tuned for the next blog, Monday, May 4.

Monday, April 6, 2015

A collection of kindred spirits: The Society for Veterinary Medicine and Literature

It's funny, isn't it, when something you didn't even know you were looking for suddenly pops up out of nowhere? That's what happened recently when I discovered The Society for Veterinary Medicine and Literature. What? I thought. You mean to tell me there's a group of vets out there who wants to talk about vet med as it's found in literature??? I assure you, it's true--the DVM book lover's Shangri-La. I spoke to one of the two founders of the group, Dr. Elizabeth Stone, to find out more.

The concept of the Society started in 2001 when Elizabeth and her co-founder, poet Hilde Weisert, put together an elective course for students at NC State University's College of Veterinary Medicine covering vet med and literature. After Elizabeth became Dean at Ontario Veterinary College, she brought the elective with her. "When I had the classes both at NC State and Ontario, the students who would sign up, for many of them, it was like an oasis," she says. "It's like they'd just been all science to get into vet school and once they get in, of course, it's all still science. It's like they have it hidden away in a drawer that they like these other things and they found some other people in the college who were interested in reading. It gives legitimacy to their interest. It's not serious science stuff for once."

After accumulating extensive positive feedback from students who had taken the course, Elizabeth and Hilde went on to organize the first ever international Veterinary Medicine and Literature Symposium in 2010 at the Ontario Veterinary College and in 2012, as editors, published their first collection of short stories and poems sharing the theme of animals and vet med, titled Animal Companions, Animal Doctors, Animal People.

Just two years later, Elizabeth collaborated with fellow veterinary professor Cate Dewey to edit another collection of vet med stories, this time featuring zoonotic diseases and titled Sick! Curious Tales of Pests and Parasites We Share with Animals.

Overall, the Society, "promotes the reading and discussion of literary works to explore important issues in veterinary medicine--and for the intrinsic pleasure and value of reading and discussing good literature, a way of renewing one's joy in being a veterinarian and a human being." Although the past few years have been relatively quiescent for the society, Elizabeth and Hilde plan on ramping things up again.

"We've cycled in and out depending on where we are in our lives," says Elizabeth. "But we really do believe in it. We need more than just Hilde and me working on it. It needs to be a true discussion, bringing in different points of view."

To this end, currently the Society meets virtually in an almost monthly fashion to discuss future plans for the group as well as what folks are reading and the relevance to vet med. Membership is free and if you're interested, contact information is available here.

Elizabeth's background in research is evident in one of her goals for the Society, which is to attempt to inventory what's available in terms of written work produced by veterinarians. "Blogs, Twitter accounts, what books are out there by and about other veterinarians, just so people know what's available," she says. "And having links to those things so people can get to them."

Analyzing what literature has to say about veterinarians can also play a vital role in a concept that is currently being discussed and emphasized in North American veterinary schools: diversity. "One of the things that has been impressed upon me while we work with students is that there is a way for people to learn about other societies and that is reading about them. I think using readings from different people's perspectives is another way to teach diversity," she says.

What about those who--gasp--just don't like to read? "There are some people that, because of their backgrounds--maybe in high school they had to dissect a poem--they really really don't like literature," Elizabeth says. "I don't think we're going to change their minds. But those people who are sitting on the fence or do really like it, I think there's a lot there we can work with."

When talking about literature in vet med, the subject of narrative medicine tends to come up. Far better known in human medicine but perhaps still not considered mainstream, narrative medicine is the medical approach that recognizes the importance of the patient's narrative to the clinical perspective. This encompasses listening to the patient's background story and therefore appreciating where the patient is coming from. Sound compassionate? That's the point. And I think to a great extent, veterinarians use this method as well (e.g. our patients can't talk to us so we get the story from the owner), but perhaps we just don't have a formal label for it. Narrative medicine also includes reading and writing on the physician's side, as means to foster creativity and self-reflection. Starting in 2009, Columbia University is now offering a master's program in narrative medicine. Additionally, there is actually a literary journal published called Intima that is specifically a journal for narrative medicine. What a wonderful creative tool for physicians!


Naturally, a conversation with Elizabeth eventually turns to the market for books about vet med or works that feature veterinarians. Given her background of scrounging for vet med-related pieces for her elective courses and for the Society, she has interesting insight into what's out there. "A lot of the work that is written by veterinarians is humorous, the 'guess what I have in the refrigerator' kind of thing. That may only go so far," she says. "Also a lot of it is making fun of clients which of course is the favorite pastime of veterinarians [it's true, sorry] but people who are clients don't necessarily want to read about that [also true]."

Somewhat ironically, although we work with animals and practically live for animals, what people seem to want to read about are humans, no matter the context. Elizabeth points to the king of vet med in literature, James Herriot, as an example of this. "What he's really writing about is the people," she says. "The descriptions of him finishing vet school and going into practice for the first time--we've used those chapters before in our classes and I think they really speak to people."

However, there is something about those darned saccharine sweet doggie tales that keep popping up on best-seller lists. "There do seem to be books about dogs that are best sellers," Elizabeth agrees. "What is it about that, from the veterinary side of it?"

I suppose if put head to head with a James Patterson thriller, I'd pick the sugary dog tale, too. On mere principle, of course.