October 2013




Drawing on success

by Maxine Lipner EyeWorld Senior Contributing Writer

Daniel, an oil painting

Meditation and water, a pastel painting

Coke on the Rocks, a watercolor painting

Kate and Adin, an oil painting Source (all): Jack Rootman, MD

Ectasy, Compassion, Reverie and Escape, an oil painting

Dr. Rootman explores life's full palette

It was something well known to all of his patients. Renowned ophthalmologist Jack Rootman, MD, professor of ophthalmology and pathology, University of British Columbia, and visiting professor, University of California, Los Angeles, had another passionart. His paintings hung on his office walls, and on occasion he was known to send his patients invitations to his exhibitions.

"I was interested in art even as a child," Dr. Rootman said. "But I grew up in a large immigrant family so there wasn't much opportunity to do art when I was younger." The natural direction appeared to be to choose a profession. Fortunately, he also found he was drawn to medicine and chose this very early in life. He even managed to incorporate his artistic instincts into his studies. The budding ophthalmologist used his artistic skills to help master medical material. "I found that I drew well, and instead of having to write notes I could sketch everything in anatomy and histology," he said. In the early 1980s when Dr. Rootman wrote his first book on the diseases of the orbit, he also brought his artistic talents to bear. "I got involved with medical illustrators, one of whom has become a lifelong friend, with whom I've published four out of five of my surgical and nonsurgical books," Dr. Rootman said. "My involvement was helping in the conceptual design of the images and later on also using my art to interpret ideas for surgery for him."

Artistic turn

It wasn't until he was sidelined by a back injury at age 40, however, that Dr. Rootman had the opportunity to really explore his artistic side. While bedridden, his wife suggested he make good use of the time. "I had fiddled a bit with art, and my wife got me some paints and said, 'Why don't you paint while you're recovering from this injury?'" he recalled, adding, "I really got hooked on it." Primarily he explored drawing and using watercolors for the first year or so on his own. Then he began attending retreats taught by master artists. "I did a series of those, and I had a lot of wonderful teachers who were quite advanced because those courses mostly attract very good amateurs or professional artists," he said.

Ironically, an artistic turning point came in 1987 when Dr. Rootman entered a contest to have a painting of his appear on the cover of the Canadian Medical Association Journal. "One of my pieces was chosen," he said. "A gallerist saw that piece and invited me to consider doing a show." From there he joined the Canadian Federation of Artists, composed of a mixture of professionals and amateurs in the field. "For many years I showed in their exhibitions and over time had a number of group shows and some individual exhibitions," Dr. Rootman said. He also started to take night courses at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design. By 1995 Dr. Rootman took a one-year leave of absence from his department chairmanship and went to New York City to develop his skill further. He was not, however, interested in earning an art-related degree. "I wanted to study with a particular artist, so I studied at the Art Students League, the New York Academy of Figurative Art, and the National Academy of Design," he said.

Here his work was affected by Harvey Dinnerstein, an artist with a humanistic viewpoint, who Dr. Rootman views as "a giant as a teacher and a practitioner of art." He also took an interpretive figurative painting course with San Francisco artist David Tomb. "He would set up a fairly complex scene, and we would paint it in three hours from beginning to end," Dr. Rootman said. "That was a particularly liberating experience for me because I found that when I wasn't fussing, which obviously a microsurgeon would tend to do, I was able to let go and it still came out making the kind of statement that I wanted to make."

A third mentor who stood out during this period was Dan Gheno, who taught at the National Academy of Design. "His particular approach was more about depicting moments of psychological perception," Dr. Rootman said. "I think that Dinnerstein also did that quite well in a more classical way."

He continued: "When I came back from my New York experience I bought a studio because I wanted to work in an environment that could be messy and I could leave my work out all of the time." Later, he purchased a downtown apartment to serve this purpose. This, he explained, was also a place where his wife could spend time.

Dr. Rootman's medical career took a segue in 2000 when he began spending time in Southeast Asia, namely Singapore, where he worked with the National Eye Center to develop the orbital unit in the area. There he also joined the arts community. "Altogether I did four shows there," he said. "I did one in particular that pursued Asian themes."

Human focus

Over the years, Dr. Rootman has also done a number of exhibitions with people as the primary focus. "I would say there is some influence because I know the body, and I have also studied sculpting the body," he said. "I do tend to pick topics that have something to say about the person."

Such psychological insight continues to influence Dr. Rootman's art. "The last show that I did was largely on beds and pillows, which also has the element of trying to figure out what happened in that bed," he said. In the last couple of years Dr. Rootman has been concentrating his efforts on the second edition of his book on orbital surgery to be released in November. He has also been working on some personal paintings commenting on the topic of social media.

In addition, his interests currently extend to photography, which he uses to help develop his paintings. "I think the notion of an artist not using the camera and not using the computer now is old fashioned," he said. "Contemporary artists use anything they possibly can to develop an image."

Dr. Rootman views art as having given him the opportunity to use his mind more fully. "My work was very specialized in oncology and orbital disease and pathology," he said. "I think what art gave me was the opportunity to use the other side of my brain to the exclusion of life around me." Still, he acknowledged that surgery also involves creativity. "It involves manipulating images in my head and following a pathway of imagery," Dr. Rootman said. Going forward, Dr. Rootman hopes to incorporate more emotion into his paintings and to have more human content, something he sees as understandable give the context of his 37 years in practice, where the main focus has been on patients. "People have asked me whether I would do things related to medicine and I would," he said. Dr. Rootman also hopes to share his love of the arts with his family. His children, now adults, have some interest in it. "I think the grandchildren are being very strongly influenced by their parents to pursue art as a part of life as well," he said. "It would be nice to be a part of that."

Contact information

Rootman: jrootman@me.com

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