Monday, May 18, 2015

Painting for a Cause

It's interesting to me to pick the brains of those who have artistic capabilities. How they analyze color and light, how they pick their subjects, how they tackle a project, and where their inspiration comes from illuminates their unique views of the world such that I can't help but be fascinated. For this week at VetWrite, I had the privilege to speak with Michelle McCune, DVM. A veterinarian and painter, Michelle's many visits to Africa have inspired her art and her connections to wildlife conservation.

"Royal Repose" by Michelle McCune, DVM
Michelle's first visit to Africa was in vet school. "When I first went to Namibia, it was the first time I had even left the country," she says. "I went to a country I'd never even heard of." After inquiring about free-ranging wildlife programs, Michelle found herself working side by side with Dr. Laurie Marker within the Cheetah Conversation Fund (CCF).

"At that time, it was a start-up organization out on a farm," she says. "My main job was entering data for the cheetah stud book." During her Namibia visit, Michelle would go on walks, enjoy the wildlife, and take photographs. "It was such an inspiring place to be. CCF does conservation from a very problem-solving direction. They don't go out as bleeding hearts and say: don't shoot the cheetahs. They work a lot on farm management and education. The education really ties in a lot of aspects of veterinary medicine. It really opened my eyes to how conservation can be accomplished successfully."

When Michelle returned state-side, she finished her DVM degree. Settling into small animal practice, Michelle, her husband, and growing family traveled back to various African countries and each time, Michelle would return with stories and photographs. Although Michelle was an avid artist in high school, her other talents for science and math drove her toward veterinary medicine while her sister was the art major. However, after being invited to an art class once while in her vet practice, Michelle found herself drawn back to her creative roots.
"Nathan's Koi" by Michelle McCune, DVM
"I started with still lifes and sketching and I ended up looking for things that inspired me to paint," Michelle says. "I found I was going back to photos I had taken in Africa and that's what really motivated me. I was really excited about that and it really refreshed my memory about my trips, so I started picking more and more of those photos to paint."

Michelle then explains how she got it all--veterinary medicine, her love of wildlife, and painting--to meld together. "From a veterinary perspective, obviously I had a passion for animals. I always wanted to do more for conservation. I am in small animal practice and I enjoy working with the patients and educating clients, but I felt something was missing. I kept thinking I have had these really cool experiences but I'm not doing anything with them. So I started looking for a way to really tie it all in together and discovered a group called Artists for Conservation."
"Watcher!" by Michelle McCune, DVM
Artists for Conservation is a juried art group. Michelle applied in 2008 and was accepted into their juried show. "It was really amazing and I was incredibly humbled," she says. There, she met other like-minded artists who shared her passion for wildlife conservation. Since then, Michelle has attended numerous workshops with the group. The money she earns from her paintings goes back into wildlife conservation.

"I think with my art and my being a veterinarian, I'm really interested in the interactions between the animals," she says of her two vocations. "A lot of what I do is almost portraiture because I am really trying to capture the personality of the animal itself. You know from practice that one dog isn't another isn't another and the same goes for animals in the wild. It's watching their interactions and trying to bring out the emotion and actually identify with the animal--that's what I try to bring to my art."
"Meeting of the Minds" by Michelle McCune
Every one of Michelle's paintings has a story behind it that she originally captured on camera from her trips. While some artists are drawn to pet portraiture or other ways of capturing domestic species, Michelle's focus is solely on wildlife.

"I've got one piece that's a close-up of a Cape buffalo. It's called Mbogo, which is the Namibian word for buffalo. These buffalo are cranky, nasty, very temperamental, dangerous animals--not your domestic water buffalo. They are usually portrayed with oxpeckers in their ears and snot coming out of their noses--they are really portrayed as ugly. I was trying to find the beauty in the beast. This is one of my favorite paintings because you see the power in the animal--it's not about snot coming out of his nose. It's about his eyes and his expression."
"Mbogo" by Michelle McCune, DVM
Michelle frequently helps fellow artists on various anatomical details, given her background. "My anatomical knowledge also helps me watch myself to make sure I'm portraying things accurately."

Frequently, Michelle's art compels an education for the viewer. For example, her piece "Birds of a Feather."
"Birds of a Feather" by Michelle McCune, DVM
"This piece shows a bunch of oxpeckers on the back of a zebra," she explains. "This zebra had been attacked by a lion. It had big wounds on its sides and when it came up to the watering hole, the birds were cleaning its wounds. You don't see these birds on zebras very often. You see them on giraffes, Cape buffalo, and rhino."

Although Michelle finds paintings that contain lots of stripes or spots to be visually challenging ("They make me dizzy and I have to take breaks," she says), she finds scaling down her large, expressive strokes into smaller pieces difficult. "I find I am drawn to painting large," she says.

Michelle's enthusiasm, however, seems to happily be her biggest challenge. "I just get so excited that sometimes I just jump right in without thinking what I'm doing and I end up with bad colors or bad values or edge work that's off. These are things that I have to go back and fix later. I just really need to control my enthusiasm! I never have a lack of inspiration."

Currently, Michelle practices small animal medicine part time and is able to paint during the remainder of the week in her studio, Vanishing Visions.

Please join me for my next post, Monday, June 1.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Heralds of (Veterinary) History

I was extremely disinterested in history in school. Ancient Roman history, War of the Roses, American Civil War--nothing. As I grew older, I developed a cursory interest in World War II, no thanks to a brother and father who both craft an obsession with WWII airplanes. During my freshman year of vet school, however, we had one lecture taught by the resident medical illustrator, David J. Williams. He is the co-author of a book called Veterinary Medicine: An Illustrated History. Suddenly, history became relevant to me. I was fascinated by all the antiquated instruments, "treatments", and stories of the progression of science. (Don't get me started on the riveting history of the development of vaccines.)

Enter, then, my recent discovery of a small but passionate group of veterinarians and historians who make up the American Veterinary Medical History Society (AVMHS). The introduction on their homepage says it all, so I will quote:

"Veterinarians are often not aware of the historical significance of their profession. Generally, they and others do not know or do not realize the significant role that veterinary medicine has in American history. The profession has boosted static economies, assured war victories, provided safe meat and dairy products, helped build thriving livestock industries and has been instrumental in the development of human health measures."

The purpose of the society is five-fold:
  • to become aware of published and unpublished materials and artifacts pertaining to the history of veterinary medicine and health care of animals in North and South America; 
  • to promote research and study of veterinary history and related topics; 
  • to communicate information about veterinary history in part through publication of a journal/newsletter and through seminars/meetings; 
  • to develop and distribute educational materials on the history of veterinary medicine; and
  • to assess the role of veterinarians in society and to study their impact on animal and human medicine and scientific research.
I was fortunate enough last month to converse with Dr. Howard Erickson, professor of anatomy and physiology at Kansas State University and a past president of the AVMHS, on veterinary history and how it's important to keep it near and dear to the profession. Here's what he had to say.

"Winston Churchill said, 'The farther backward you look, the farther forward you are likely to see.' I think veterinarians need to know something about their history in order to make significant advancements in the profession, to make new discoveries in disease, in vaccines, pharmaceuticals, and also to be the best in their clinical specialty."

Howard has served on the board of directors for AVMHS from 2006 to 2009. He has presented numerous papers on various historical veterinary topics and teaches a one hour elective on the history of veterinary medicine in the fall semester at KSU's College of Veterinary Medicine.

"I started going to AVMHS meetings on occasion about 20 years ago," Howard says of his initial interest in the subject. "I think I became more actively involved in the AVMHS when I helped write the history of our college [KSU] for our centennial in 2005."
Some of Howard's past professors helped shape his interest in history. "When I began college in my home town of Wahoo, Nebraska, at Luther College in 1953, I had a blind professor by the name of Iverne Dowie who taught modern history. He had a PhD from the University of Minnesota, knew exactly who was in class, what each student was going, even though he could not see." A 1913 Kansas City Veterinary College graduate from Howard's home town later wrote a letter of recommendation for his admission to KSU. This letter in and of itself is now considered historically relevant, as a link to a past where veterinary medicine was in its infancy, with academic credentials not yet harmonized throughout the country.
Courtesy Dr. Howard Erickson and AVMHS
So now we're not only talking about the fascinating history behind the science of veterinary medicine itself but also how the profession developed and grew in its legitimacy within the United States. Now we're getting into the good stuff.
Kansas City Veterinary College ambulance, credit: C. Trenton Boyd Collection
Unfortunately, most of this good stuff hasn't survived time. Relics are lost. Documents destroyed. And, of course, people die. "There were many early private schools of veterinary medicine that we know little about, have no photographs of their buildings or of their graduates," says Howard. "We also know very little of some of the early graduates." Many libraries and museums have little interest in keeping such artifacts.

Herein lies one of the biggest challenges for AVMHS and for other international veterinary historical societies: finding, achiving, and maintaining artifacts. After all, doesn't history lose some relevancy if you have nothing to show for it?

Although the AVMHS itself does not have its own museum, it has a brochure and listing outlining various farm and agricultural museums around the U.S. that have veterinary history displays.
Instead of pining for a museum that AVMHS could call home, Howard himself is extremely practical in his hopes for the future. "We would like to see an increase in the membership in the AVMHS and greater visibility within the AVMA [American Veterinary Medical Association]." The fact that life is so damn tech-y these days also isn't lost on these history buffs. Antiquated Luddites they are not. "We need a better website," Howard admits.

What AVMHS does have is gifted, passionate people both as members and on the board. AVMHS produces a regular newsletter, publishes a research journal called Veterinary Heritage (which is a delightful read and edited by the very same David J. Williams we met at the start of this blog), and holds annual meetings that jive with the location of the annual AVMA convention (Boston this summer) so really, you guys, there's no excuse not to check them out.

On a side note, Howard will be presenting a paper at the AVMHS meeting in Boston this July on "The History of George Dadd, the Boston Veterinary Institute, and Early Presidents of the United States Veterinary Medical Association." Dadd was a veterinarian and author of The Theory and Practice of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery.
Courtesy Dr. Howard Erickson and AVMHS
Of course, the U.S. isn't the only country to have an organized society devoted to veterinary medical history. England, Germany, and Turkey are other nations that Howard lists that have strong societies and there's even a World Association for the History of Veterinary Medicine. After all, the very first veterinary colleges were born in Europe.

The National Veterinary School of Lyon, France
But at the end of the day, AVMHS holds its own. "I think the AVMHS is one of the strongest veterinary medical history societies in the world," Howard says. Totally.

Stay tuned: next VetWrite blog is up Monday, May 18.