The surgeon’s blank canvas

A look inside the creative mind of Dr. Jung Yoo

June 23, 2015
Copyright Jung YooPhysicians have aspired to practice the “art” of medicine for centuries. For spine surgeon Jung Yoo, M.D., switching between the scalpel and the paintbrush is a natural gesture due to years of practice in both disciplines.

It all started with Renoir’s Two Sisters (On the Terrace). Dr. Yoo, professor and chair of orthopaedics and rehabilitation, OHSU School of Medicine, saw the famous painting as an adolescent and was struck by the careful placement of each brush stroke. Now, three decades into an illustrious clinical and research career, Dr. Yoo relies on the teachings of both art and medicine in his everyday work as a clinical department leader within Oregon’s only comprehensive academic health center.

Drawn initially to realism, Dr. Yoo would often take the short walk from his high school to visit the Art Institute of Chicago. Eventually, he began filling his own blank canvases. Over the years, his finished works began to reflect a more abstract style. Dr. Yoo said he is drawn to the way stories and emotions can be conveyed through color and composition. Unlike the exactitude of surgery and science, “nothing is definite” in abstract art. 

This deftness at balancing the rigors of academic medicine with the ambiguity of abstraction has become a signature part of the leadership role he’s held since joining OHSU in 2004. “I tell my trainees that surgery is looked on as technical work, Copyright Jung Yoobut every good artist has to be a good technician,” said Dr. Yoo. “At the same time, when a good surgeon’s work is done, it should look like art. It should be pleasing.” 

Dr. Yoo believes everyone has a creative desire and has inspired a number of his patients to take up painting as part of their rehabilitation process. He spends at least 10 hours a week with his oil paints, tapping into his own inner drive to be visually expressive. “You have to have something in life that expresses pure joy.”  

As with the biomedical sciences, there is no final stopping point in art. New studies will always be conducted. The latest evidence on treatment recommendations is always evolving. The end goal is not perfection; it’s the acquisition of new knowledge that marks a successful professional. Dr. Yoo has learned to let his experiences – and the ever-growing vocabulary of his paintbrush – guide the way.

Dr. Yoo’s art will be shown beginning on Thursday, July 2 at Elizabeth Lofts, 333 NW 9th Avenue (Portland), during a First Thursday exhibition of works by members of the Oregon Society of Artists.

All images copyright Jung Yoo.