Monday, June 15, 2015

From Flesh and Blood to Folded Steel

Veterinarians work with their hands. We palpate, we pet, we suture, we cut, we bandage. Some of us use hands for more than clinical efforts in the hospital; painting and drawing are some recent examples here on VetWrite. But what about bringing art into the third dimension? Let's hear from Dr. Patricia Frederick, equine veterinarian and sculptor.
Dr. Pat Frederick
Originally from Arizona, Pat grew up with a fierce love of horses. With no horse of her own, Pat had the good fortune to have a friend with a horse that needed exercising in the summer. Soon enough, this led to a job at a dude ranch, all at the age of 11. "Imagine a child of that age guiding ranch guests out on trails," says Pat. "Holy cow!"

Naturally, Pat chose to pursue an education in veterinary medicine with a focus on horses. "I was part of a five member surgery team in veterinary school," Pat recalls. "We were given a unique class while the small animal surgeries were filled with the other 44 students. Of course, we did small animal surgery, too. We had to argue to get the horse experience." Pat graduated from Washington State University's vet school in 1966.

"Amigos", by Pat Frederick, DVM
Although Pat did some drawing during her childhood, she admits most of her spare time was spent on horseback. However, once Pat had young children of her own, she started working with clay. "I did clay for several years," she says. When her family moved to Australia in 1984 due to a job opportunity for her husband, Pat took a ceramics course and then pursued an associate degree in painting.

"When we returned to Arizona [in 1991], I had ceramic sculptures which were fragile. I was fortunate to get private tutoring for bronze sculpture. As I learned how much welding the bronzes required, after casting, I took a welding class and was hooked. Steel was not only more available but cheaper and I thought easier to sell."

Pat stopped practicing when she turned 63. It was then that she was able to devote herself completely to her art. Prior to this switch, Pat held certifications in chiropractic medicine, holistic veterinary medicine, and acupuncture. "I have always wanted to 'do art' since high school," Pat says. "I liked biology, too, and science in general, but the art 'thing' was what I tried to make time for as our children grew."

However, it was only after veterinary retirement that Pat was able to immerse herself in her art. "I knew that as I aged I could someday misjudge a horse and get hurt, so I decided to quit veterinary work and start a new job. There is a pretty high learning curve in Art Business which I study seriously. I have shown in many galleries, attended workshops, teach, and generally practice, practice, practice."

"Practice, practice, practice."

Pat's lifelong love of horses is evident in her steel pieces, as a vast majority of her sculptures are of the equine species. Pat's appreciation for horses, however, goes much further than the skin deep beauty of the creature. "Whenever anyone gets on a horse they are immediately on top of the world," Pat says. "Not only are we above the rest of the humans but we are also imbued with a heroic feeling and have an energy under us which is thrilling and useful."
"Tango", by Pat Frederick, DVM
This concept of Horses Make Heroes has heavily influenced many of Pat's pieces. "Of course, no one has to be on top of the horse to feel the hero as brushing, cleaning feet, and feeling a soft hot breath on your neck is as magical as any time can be," she says. "As a veterinarian, this feeling continued when I went into my unique fields with sport horses because after a chiropractic and acupuncture treatment, most horses actually step forward and say thank you with closeness and breath and relaxation."
"Good Luck", by Pat Frederick, DVM
Now with well over 100 pieces to her name and projects gracing numerous galleries in Arizona as well as Australia and Tasmania, Pat estimates she completes about six pieces a year. This of course is highly dependent on their size. The largest project Pat has completed is called "Carousel of Life," a piece with five horses that took her almost a year. The entire piece is fifteen feet in diameter and consists of glass, steel, aluminum, copper, silver, bronze, cement, and wood.

"The time involved encompasses the drawings and research," Pat explains. "A couple of months of three to six hour days and four to five days per week." A step by step process, Pat likens sculpting to drawing, but with steel, not graphite.

Another example of a deep rooted message within Pat's work is a series she calls "Hippophagy." A result of Pat's desire to comment on the debate of horse slaughter and eating horse meat, these pieces are a way to evoke thought and self-reflection among horse owners and the choices they make that may or may not contribute to horse overpopulation. "People are so polarized by 'eating' horse and don't seem to realize why US horses end there," she says. "I felt I needed to call attention to the work in order to get it noticed." Next to the piece as a whole, Pat places a long dialog, called "Menu."

"Menu", by Pat Frederick, DVM
"Dining Out", by Pat Frederick, DVM
"I feel that the horses that are sent to slaughter if done humanely in both travel and killing are getting a better end than they might have done when the recession hit," she continues. "We breed too many dogs, cats, and horses in many countries and then they suffer sad lives and a hard end of life. I guess my bottom line is: if there are so many horses being shipped to slaughter for meat, whose fault is it?"
"Friends Dying", by Pat Frederick, DVM
Like other artists who have been featured on here on VetWrite, Pat emphasizes how her veterinary knowledge of anatomy is a basic building block for her art. "The essence of the animal is basically the energy they are putting into a movement with the correct anatomy," she says. After the primary correct structure is captured, Pat lets her creative side take over. "Once the posture and bones of the armature are in place, I stop being realistic. I have never wanted to capture a purely realistic look--just the essence--so that your own mind and eye fills in the spaces which you don't see without knowing it."

Pat draws inspiration for her pieces from her memory and things she has seen. For her piece "Corowa Sheila", Pat was driving through a town called Howlong, in New South Wales, Australia. "I saw a young girl lying on her horse, obviously waiting for a friend," she says. "The horse was appreciating the shade of a gum tree."
"Corowa Shelia" by Pat Frederick, DVM

In another piece called "Hope," Pat recalls a horse show she attended. "I was getting ready to show and saw a horse standing in a single wire 'stall,'" she says. "It was constructed with the little nylon posts which hold hot wire. He was a big, lanky Thoroughbred and the girl who left him there had put a bucket just out of reach. He was stretching with every sinew of his body to reach the bucket without stepping out of the enclosure."
"Hope" by Pat Frederick. DVM
"I have been very lucky to have such a supportive husband and sons who do whatever they can to encourage me," Pat says. When asked what advice she can offer to others aspiring to explore their creative outlets, she says this: "Just DO it. Try to make time for your hobby. There are so many different forms of artistic expression--the world is your oyster."

Stay tuned for July 6 for the next post.

Monday, June 1, 2015

As Luck Would Have It

Traveling through the internet as I do on a more-than-necessary basis, I came upon a little gem of an article from the Gainesville Sun about a veterinary oncology surgeon who also happened to be a cancer survivor and author. In her book which was just published last year, Dr. Sarah Boston, Associate Professor of Surgical Oncology at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida, lays out reality as she knows it:
  • about how, while living and working in Canada, she encountered a sluggish and apathetic medical system when trying to get her thyroid carcinoma diagnosed and treated; 
  • how the human medical field seems to pale in comparison to the compassion that is a hallmark of the veterinary field; 
  • and how her writing became an outlet for humor and a place of solace. 
Lucky Dog: How Being a Veterinarian Saved My Life captures this meaty goodness and tenderizes it into an interesting piece on the table of veterinary authors.  

Let's get to know Sarah a little better.

"This all started just over four years ago," Sarah says. "I was living in Canada at the time. I was getting ready for bed and putting lotion on my neck and I found a mass. I knew it wasn't there before because I'm a veterinarian and an oncologist and I touch things for a living. I just knew it was my thyroid. I don't want to say I panicked, but I just thought it would be like veterinary medicine and I would go to my doctor and he would get me to a specialist and I would have surgery in a week or two."

Quickly enough, Sarah found out this was not the way things were going to go at all.

"Things just ground to a halt," she continues. "Four doctors told me it probably wasn't cancer and that it had been there for a while and it was probably benign. Everything was so slow. I couldn't even get an ultrasound for a week and a half."

In the meantime, Sarah borrowed her husband's (a large animal veterinarian) ultrasound. The image she saw confirmed her fears. "It looked like a thyroid carcinoma in a dog and I've done that surgery hundreds of times. I follow my patients up with ultrasound, so I know what it looks like in dogs. I looked at my ultrasound and was like: OK, no."

Winding her way back and forth to specialists, Sarah entered a scary time. The mass was growing and she felt no one was listening to her. Finally, two and a half months passed between when Sarah found the mass and when she had surgery. "I couldn't help but compare what I would have done for my patients," she says. "They would have been in and out within a couple of days. I couldn't even get an ultrasound in that time when I had the same health problem."

During this process, Sarah began to do what a lot of people would do -- seek an outlet. Hers was writing. "I was just frustrated," she says. "I was writing these little essays. It was really about trying to make my situation funny--me trying to amuse myself. That was really the initial reason for me starting to write. It was cathartic."

Sometimes, writing begets writing (aren't we writers lucky enough to sometimes reach that point?) and Sarah soon found herself with 40,000ish words--way too much for a blog, way more than just a couple humorous essays.

--Writers, this is where Sarah's story gets surreal. Stick with me, here. Think the ultimate writerly dream of meeting someone on a chance encounter and ending with a book deal is the stuff of fantasies? Hold on to your hats.--

Sarah attended a gala at the Animal Cancer Center at the University of Guelph. Speaking at this fundraiser, Sarah decided to read a few of her essays, "So I could explain to the donors why animal cancer is important and how it relates to human cancer," she says. As the Fates would have it, Sarah was sitting next to Noah Richler, a well-known Canadian author. After her reading, "Noah pulled out a pad, got my information, and said he was going to put me in touch with the best publisher in the country," Sarah says. "And I was like: OK."

At this point, Sarah had had two thyroid surgeries and was undergoing radiation. Although she originally didn't expect anything to come of this serendipitous meeting, she soon received an email from Noah introducing Sarah to his wife, well-known in the publishing world. "Through that connection, I sent in a partial first draft. And then I had what I call my Sex in the City moment: I basically walked in and had a book deal within 15 minutes. I was completely stunned, not expecting that at all."

OK, OK. Calm down. See? These sorts of things CAN happen. The Writer's Fates are REAL.

Anyway, back to our subject. Fast forward to the finished product, a book that shares both Sarah's thyroid experience and the experiences of her own four-legged cancer patients. More than a memoir, Lucky Dog carries with it a few strong messages.

"The book has a really strong message of advocacy," Sarah says. "You need to be a really strong advocate for yourself, your dog, your family member who is having health issues. No one cares as much as you do about your health. The thing that scared me the most about my whole process was that multiple times I was told, sort of, to go home. We'll watch it. And I remember thinking that if I were a history professor or someone without this medical background, then, who knows."

A cancer scare or any death scare, really, can make one realize or appreciate on a grand scale how delicate, how short, how precious life really is. (Says Seneca: "Life is long if you know how to use it.") Sarah touches on her realization of this, too. "Thinking I have cancer, then having cancer, then being treated for cancer creates this feeling of living in the moment," she says. "I learn that from the patients I see. Just because my patients have cancer, they don't sit there and worry about it and think about how they're going to die. They are enjoying the moment and quality of life. I think anyone who has had cancer or a cancer scare, they come to the other side of that. They get to where dogs are. Even though you may have a relatively long life, it's not really that much time so make sure you're happy. Someone told me after reading the book that I feared being unhappy more than I feared death. And I think that's true. Be happy in your life."

"Get to where dogs are."

This wouldn't be a talk about a veterinary memoir if it didn't include a reference to the venerable James Herriot. Sarah addresses this outright: "I was trying not to be another James Herriot. I love him, but I was trying to be another voice in veterinary literature, trying to shed some light on what we do as veterinarians, to help people understand what goes on in our profession. I'm actually considering writing another book on that subject because I think it's an important area to explore."

Given how Sarah found herself at a unique juxtaposition between the same human and veterinary professional specialties of oncology, naturally her book includes discussion on the differences and similarities between the two. "I think there are many ways in which veterinary medicine works better," she says. "I think we are more efficient, more compassionate. We spend more time with our clients, sometimes to our own detriment because people get burnt out and suffer from compassion fatigue. But it's what we do. To compare the time my surgeon spent with me to what my clients ask of me, it's not even in the same world. I'm trying to show that."

And of course, any dialogue on health care must invoke opinions on socialized versus privatized care, especially now that Sarah lives and works in Florida. "There's a little bit of the book contrasting Canadian and US health systems," she says. "I actually don't think socialized medical care is bad. I'm Canadian and believe strongly in socialized medicine. In the end I was treated and it didn't cost me any money but the problem in Canada is it's slow. There are inefficiencies. But, everyone is covered and has the right to have the surgery they need without financial hardship."

Of course you're all wondering, as I was, how Sarah is doing now. I was relived to have her tell me she's great. Her treatment lasted a total of nine months and she laughs this off by saying it was good for writing. "Thyroid is a "good" cancer," she says, "because it has a high cure rate. I'm inching up on that magic five year mark." With no cancer in the lymph nodes, clean margins, radioactive iodine and total thyroidectomy--the whole kit and kaboodle--Sarah says her check ups have been good.

We ended our conversation on a light note. Sarah wanted to emphasize how her book was meant to be humorous and says the most common feedback she's received from the book is that people say they laughed out loud and cried. "To me, that's amazing," she says. "I think as you're going through something like cancer, you have to find a way to have humor in it because it's about finding joy. Try to find the laughter and the joy in things."

I can't think of a better way to end a blog than that. You can follow Sarah on Twitter: @DrSarahBoston.

See you in two weeks--next post will be Monday, June 15.

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.

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.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Illuminating the Art of Medical Illustration

I have always been intrigued by the artwork featured in anatomy, physiology, and surgical books. The unique beauty of a feline humerus, a cross section of intestinal epithelium, a depiction of the differentiation of bone marrow cells - who is responsible for these brutally accurate portrayals? How would one begin to draw the equine digestive system, esophagus to colon? I for one can't even manage an image that remotely mimics a hoof or nostril, let alone the intimate details of the greater trochanter of the femur. This set of skills and embodiment of artistic talent lies in a very special group of people: medical illustrators.

Last week I had the great pleasure of talking to one of the few certified medical illustrators in the country who is also a veterinarian, Dr. Lauren Sawchyn. Owner and creative director of Sawchyn Medical Illustration, Lauren shared with me her background, her inspirations, and her artistic process.
"Many Paths, One Profession" by L. Sawchyn

Lauren started drawing from an early age and her mother, a veterinary technician and practice manager, was a strong inspiration. "My mother was always very creative, so I guess I got that gene from her," says Lauren. When Lauren was young, her mother brought home a copy of Hill's Atlas of Veterinary Clinical Anatomy. Lauren was entranced. "It was made so that you could take it into the exam room and write on it with a dry erase marker. It was cool. I kept it all through the years and I loved it. It was fascinating -- all these disease drawings of dogs and cats. Kind of gruesome for a little kind, but I was like: whoa! That connected with me as I grew older and discovered the field of medical illustration."
"AIEC Invades Canine Intestinal Epithelium" by L. Sawchyn

After struggling with the notion that she might have to choose between art and veterinary medicine as a vocation, Lauren earned her Bachelor's degree in studio arts with a minor in zoology at the University of Maine. After that, she gained entrance into one of only five medical illustration master's programs in the country then rounded out her education at Cornell's vet school, where she began to sow the seeds of her business. "I ended up doing a lot of illustrations for my professors while I was at Cornell," she says. "That led to connections I later had when I opened my business."

After graduation from Cornell, Lauren dove into small animal practice and since has slowly started to weave medical illustration into the milieu. She now practices a few times a week and spends the other days in her studio.

From her portfolio, it's easy to see that Lauren has worked on numerous projects but when asked for a favorite, there's delightfully no answer. "The question of which project is my favorite is a really hard question for me because I love all of them," she says. "I wish I did have a favorite so that way I could specialize more, but I just love them all. Most of my work, based on what I've done in the past and where my connections are, is for veterinarians doing research. I've done a little bit of textbook work. Most clients are doing really interesting research projects and they call me to draw and help visualize the research."
"Measuring the equine optic nerve sheath diameter" by L. Sawchyn

Many clients will come to Lauren with a project and commission her for the accompanying artwork. Other times, Lauren works on creating a portfolio of stock images she can use and refer to in the future. With so many facets to medical illustration, even though she needs to be medically accurate, there are still plenty of ways for Lauren to put her own creative spin--her own style--on her work. But because of the nature of copyright laws in the art world, Lauren licenses the use of her work to clients instead of selling the art outright. "If I draw a picture of a dog heart and I give that to someone who has commissioned me and I give that copyright to them, then I can never draw another dog heart that looks like that again in that particular style without infringing on that," she explains.
"Feline Lateral Skeleton" by L. Sawchyn

The amount of personal style Lauren puts in a project depends on the project itself. "If it's an editorial piece, you can be more creative than if it's a surgical drawing for a textbook. With that, you can't get too wild with the color and designs, unfortunately, because you want it to be really clear and really accurate because someone is going to be doing surgery after they look at your picture. But all that presents a challenge and it's fun. It's fun to take it to both extremes. There has to be an element of creativity to all of it."

My memory jumps back to the "old days" where textbooks showed standard colors, standard views. Where will modern science take the medical art world? "Where we are right now in scientific discovery, there are still so many unknowns that it gives the artist a lot of liberty to just go with it. We don't truly exactly know the color of some cells and things like that. It can be challenging and sometimes frustrating but also really fun because you can create and visualize a whole environment. There are some people who are like: THE VEINS MUST BE BLUE AND THE NERVES MUST BE YELLOW. There's very standard stuff, but you can play with that and that's fun."

"Feline Portosystemic Shunt" by L. Sawchyn
When describing her technique and the tools she uses, Lauren discusses the balance of classical art techniques with today's technology. "When I was in art school, we used a lot of the old techniques, like pen and ink, but now, there are a lot of computer software programs. You're not so much relying on the computer; the computer doesn't make it easier. It's just a different tool. Instead of using a pen with ink on a piece of paper, I'm using a tablet that draws a line directly into a software program. It's a different tool but I'm still drawing a line."

"I still create what I call fine art on the easel," she continues. "People commission me to do pet portraits. That technique is still there and it needs to be there. People think of art as: you're just born with it. I think you're born with an aptitude and then you have to do years and years of training to get the technical skills right."

"Toggle Pin Stabilization of Bovine Left Displaced Abomasum" by L. Sawchyn
Obviously, an in-depth knowledge of anatomy and pathology weigh heavily in Lauren's work. She still dissects when she needs to, for reference. "I have enough of a reference library and background built up that for many drawings, I can reference my own photos, my own sketches, and check them with peer-reviewed data and published text books," she says. "But let's say someone contacted me tomorrow and asked me to draw the anatomy of a sugar glider. I would probably have to get more resources and even go to a school or museum and do a dissection in order to review that. It's really important for a medical illustrator to be as accurate as possible."

"I find ruminants especially challenging," she continues. "There's a lot with camelid anatomy compared to sheep and goats that for some reason people want to lump all together and they really do not have the same anatomy. That to me is fun. Camelid anatomy that I've done has been more challenging than others."  
"Clinical Anatomy of the Camelid Stomach" by L. Sawchyn

Although being in private practice as stolen some of Lauren's doodling time away, she still finds ways to be loose with her art. "I come from a fine art background. I did some really funky paintings. And then you go into realism with those highly accurate drawings that are really cool but sometimes you need to let your brain float away from that. Most of my doodles are actually of my own pets. I'll also have various paintings going on in my studio. Sometimes they sit on my easel for a long time while I work on other projects, but I come back to them. Sometimes I go outside; I live by the ocean. A lot of that inspires what I do, what colors I choose. That's a more relaxing form of artwork. I won't say I like one more than the other, it just uses a different part of my brain."

Going back to the pet portraiture Lauren finds herself commissioned to do, she says that part of her business wasn't planned but it's a nice extra. "Just by being in practice, you see pets from birth to death and I have owners approach me and ask if I'd do a portrait of their pet that passed away. That's nice. It means a lot to people and it's a nice thing for me to get involved in. People approach me with the most fantastic ideas."

Speaking of fascinating.... how about body art? "I cannot tell you how many people have approached me to design their tattoos!" Lauren laughs. "Which I would totally do! I've told every single person: tell me what you would like and I'll do it. But, so far, no one has followed through. It cracks me up."

Stay creative and stay tuned for my next blog, Monday, April 6.