Romantics fancy the mad artist, endowed with tortured genius and anguished visions.
The idea of the orthopedic artist, though, is a more jarring notion. “Orthopedic” conjures up images of misalignment and cumbersome braces.
Yet while the term defines an array of musculoskeletal conditions arthritis, osteoporosis, scoliosis, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, amputation, broken bones it also extends to the emotions and challenges that these conditions can arouse.
That is the notion behind “eMotion: An Exhibition of Orthopaedics in Art.” It’s sponsored by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Tied to its annual convention, the exhibit is a way for surgeons to talk about issues in their industry. One way to do it, explains Yerba Buena Center for the Arts executive director John Killacky, is to see it through the artistic expression, “dealing with different layers of reality behind pain.”
“I thought it was so exciting,” Killacky says. “To me, art serves a function in a society. In a bigger society it allows us to dream our dreams, it also allows us to express our nightmare and fears.”
Killacky was intrigued by the concept, first because he’s always on the lookout for new artists, and second, because he himself had spinal surgery five years ago. Although the tumor inside his spinal cord turned out to be benign, the surgery resulted in his left side permanently losing sensation and his right side without a sense of location.
“Of course (AAOS) asked me and they didn’t know this,” Killacky says. He served as a jurist, along with San Francisco Museum of Modern Art director David Ross and Cleveland Institute of Art President Emeritus Joseph McCullough. The three whittled down the more than 1,300 entries to the current display of 173 pieces, representing 143 artists orthopedic surgeons and patients from 11 countries and 33 states.
“We approached it all from the aesthetics. We didn’t want to know anything about the people’s personal histories, or what symptomology they were trying to manifest in their art,” he explains.
In the end, the jurists were pleasantly surprised by the depth, range and diversity of forms. “The work is not about their disability, it’s about their art.”
That professionalism relieves Berkeley photographer Ricardo Gil, one of the nine Bay Area artists represented in the exhibit. “I kind of am unsure sometimes about disability-type exhibitions,” he says. Some strive to be honest and forthright, but he adds, “I don’t like sympathy exhibitions.”
Gil, born a dwarf, submitted “Christo,” a black-and-white nude self-portrait. “Dwarfism carries with it so many orthopedic conditions,” he says. “I wore orthopedic shoes when I was a kid, I wore orthopedic braces from the waist down.”
It’s not his physical form that fits with the eMotion theme. In the photo, a metal halo atop his head is actually an orthopedic device that was twice bolted into his skull.
Gil, during a Hollywood detour on the way to art school, hurt himself in a stunt. “It was one of these terrible films in Hollywood, I can’t even remember the title,” he recounts. “It was at a house where there were all these trapezes and rigs. I was supposed to jump or be catapulted in such a way with a giant swing.”
A bad landing on the airbag also landed Gil in the hospital. After surgery, he wore the halo, “a contraption that immobilizes your neck so that healing can take place with the fusion.”
Gil recalls, “Here I am a dwarf. I’m already very noticeable in the world. People stop their cars, turn around and point me out. And now I have to walk around in a halo.”
A second surgery, this time using bone cut from his pelvis, worked. Gil kept the first halo and the bolts from the second. “Oh gosh, it was my badge.” As a Catholic and former altar boy, he especially felt a metaphorical affinity to the pains that Christ suffered. “I was struck by the experience.”
Another photographic entrant is Fred Etheridge of Albany, who picked up the hobby from his uncle. His love for outdoor landscapes hasn’t diminished with the gradual progression of Charcot Marie Tooth disease, a form of muscular dystrophy that affects the lower arms and legs.
When Etheridge graduated from college, he biked 4,000 miles across the country. The environmental law attorney used to cycle to work every day. Nowadays, his range has narrowed to 50-100 yards a time.
A telephoto lens helps to close the distance. To take the exhibited photo of a lichen-encrusted weather-beaten fence, he pulled the car to one side, set up the camera on his tripod, sat on his wooden kitchen stool and began shooting.
“Photography is still a way to get me outside, because you can’t be indoors all the time,” says Etheridge. “I just love it.” Besides, his uncle who introduced him to his pursuit had both CMT and polio.
“Photography really is problem-solving. You go through all these technical considerations. Is there enough light? What about the composition? Mobility is just another problem to solve.”
A smaller portion of the exhibit is devoted to the surgeons themselves. San Jose surgeon John Fortune has four mixed-media sculptures. Although he comes from a family of artists and musicians, the doctor claims not to have an artistic bone in his body.
“You can’t even read my writing,” he says. “My family is shocked.”
The models created from a hodgepodge of orthopedic hardware are playful, but they all pay homage to those who have inspired, taught and mentored him.
Fortune knows that orthopedics is viewed more as a science than an art. Yet, for both the doctor and the patient, reshaping the body can present artistic challenges. A complicated fracture, for instance, presents itself like a jigsaw puzzle but, he says, because people are biological and not just mechanical, “when you’re trying to piece it back together, the art is doing it without hurting the things around it.”