Monday, April 4, 2016

Fundamentals of Form and Function

This month, I have a feast for the eyes to share with you. Talking with Dr. John Plishka, a small animal veterinarian and pastel painter in northern Illinois, we explore how creative expression through art helps provide balance to the scientific brain. Oh, and how horses are the most gorgeous creatures on the planet. Duh.
"Tiger's Eyes" by John Plishka, DVM
John credits a lot of his artistic talent to his mother. "I've seen some of Mom's old drawings that she did when she was a kid and they are amazing, so I think a lot of my talent was given to me by her," he says. "To me, art has always come easily but as I got older, I realized I had to refine it and take it more seriously."

Although John took art classes throughout high school, the academic demands of undergrad and vet school became the priority. "My drawing frequency really decreased significantly at that time," he says. "But about five or six years out of vet school, for whatever reason, the urge to paint started coming back pretty heavily. I started drawing and painting, mostly with oils. But I've always liked painting with pastels and that has been my media of choice for the past few years. Pastels are quick, you can re-work it easily, and you don't have to wait for it to dry. And this whole time, I started re-discovering my creative side again."
"Day is Done" by John Plishka, DVM
At this point, John got serious about his art. "I wanted to take it to the next level," he says. While still practicing veterinary medicine, he started taking art classes and found an instructor who guided refinement into his work and helped with his mistakes. "I think a big part of it was confidence for me, knowing that I could actually really paint and make something that was really, really good."

Soon, John's work was attracting attention. He entered a few contests, won awards, and, as the saying goes, never looked back. "[Winning awards] really helps with the confidence," he acknowledges. "Knowing I can do that and be good at it. A big thing for me was then becoming a member of the Academy of Equine Art. That was a big goal for me. It was quite an honor to be accepted into that circle of people who are really the best equine artists in the country. I still don't think I'm worthy of that!"

This concept of confidence keeps coming back, this fact of human nature that John endearingly tangles with--this tiger in the weeds--despite his obvious talent. "Like everything, you're never really there," he says. "You have to keep striving. I think the day an artist can be satisfied with something is the day he needs to hang it up." Which, of course, can be said of all professions, I believe (especially writing...). I compare this to another painter's observation: "If we all have continuous confidence in our creativity, it would become dull and not very inspiring," says Lida van Bers.

Through all of John's artistic accomplishments, remember he's still a full-time veterinarian, with all that entails, so naturally, the common concern of time meanders into our conversation."Now, it's just about finding the time," John says. "I do a fair number of commissions now, but those cut into your creative time so it's a bit of a double-edged sword. The more you work, the more people want commissions, but the more commissions you have, then the less you're able to express yourself how you really want to." John sees himself as having perhaps about ten more years in the veterinary profession before he retires and then dedicates himself solely to his art.

"A little to the left" by John Plishka, DVM
The majority of John's work, as you see on his Facebook page, is of horses. He has a few reasons why this is. "One is that obviously they are just amazingly beautiful animals," he says. "Horses are the consummate example of form and function with their muscles and tendons as power and levers. You look at a horse and it not only satisfies the artist but also satisfies the engineer in you because it's just amazing how they are put together. With horses, it's like watching a tool at work. All the cogs are there to see." John also has an interest in military history, in which of course horses have a major role.

"You look at a horse and it not only satisfies the artist but also satisfies the engineer."

In previous conversations I've had with veterinary painters, the science of anatomy features heavily in their work and with John, this is no exception. Being a vet with extensive knowledge in anatomy has been extremely helpful, he says. "It's not even just with horses. It's with everything. If you're painting an eye, you know what's in there. Being a vet, I know animals literally inside and out." At an art show a few years ago, John recalls a woman who was able to identify the breed of horse in his painting even though it wasn't even a full head shot. "She was able to identify it as a Thoroughbred and she said 'He's got his anatomy spot on,' " recalls John. "And that was a great compliment."
"Eye Candy" by John Plishka, DVM
Ultimately, however, practicing art is about how the creative process makes you feel. "Painting brings me a lot of peace and joy," John says. There was a period in John's veterinary career where he says he experienced some burn out. "When I look back at that time, I wasn't as creative," he says. John observes that the amount of creativity in our lives parallels our moods. "Creativity helps us see that other side of life; it makes for a better situation, gives us more perspective."

"Creativity helps us see that other side of gives us more perspective."

We end our conversation discussing my favorite piece of John's, a painting titled "Cascade." This painting was done from a photo John took at the Midwest Horse Show in Madison, WI a few years ago (most of John's pieces are from photographs he's taken at an earlier time). "This was a breakthrough piece for me," John says. He hadn't been painting for a while due to various health issues but he came back with this work. The title refers to the flow of the horse's mane. "I felt that even though the animal was black, I marveled at how many colors are actually in the void of color. The mane reminded me of a waterfall."
"Cascade" by John Plishka, DVM
And with that exquisite image, I'll end things here. Until next month!


  1. Gorgeous. Nice to see us expressing our selvesinso many ways. Even in today's world of amazing technology there is still an art in veterinary medicine itself. A purely mechanical approach can get you into trouble.

  2. Very inspirational to hear about someone pursuing their dream and becoming successful instead of following the traditional path.

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  3. Agreed! The places a little creativity will take you is really inspiring.