As an antidote to the drab waiting room norm, local physicians offer visual art alongside the art of medicine.
Photography by Mary Grace Grabill & Mirelle Inglefield
A painting helped Susan Richey-Schmitz get through a difficult time.
“My father-in-law was critically ill and about to go into surgery,” she remembers. “My husband and I weren’t sure he would make it, and we were distraught.”
Seated in the waiting room of a local hospital, the Phoenix-based commercial photographer spotted a piece of artwork across the room. “It was a really big portrait of some succulents, and the sheer depth of emotion in the painting made it impossible to pull my eyes away.”
The vibrant artwork by botanical artist Dyana Hesson seemed out of place in a stark, brown waiting area, Richey-Schmitz says. She and her husband began talking about how Hesson used light and shadow, whether the painting was an oil or acrylic. “After a while, we realized we’d stopped worrying,” Richey-Schmitz says. “The painting took us out of an emotional spiral and helped us feel calm.”
The power of art to calm patients and their loved ones is no secret to many Valley physicians. In one local optometrist’s office, a collection of two-dimensional metallic sculptures distracts clients awaiting eye exam results, while one North Phoenix pain management clinic offers calming fine art photography made by the doctors themselves.
“I’m seeing more real art in doctors’ offices,” says Hesson, who lives and works in the Valley. “That’s a good thing, because art is more than something pretty to hang on the wall. It can help heal.”
Here’s a sampling of local medical professionals whose practices include the curative power of fine art.
Dr. Fred Arnold, N.M.D.
“You won’t see a blank white wall in our office,” says Dr. Fred Arnold, a naturopath at Scottsdale Pain Rehabilitation & Wellness. “We don’t do a lot of traditional medicine here, so some of our patients are coming into an unknown situation. It’s extra-important that we create an environment that’s relaxing. Dyana Hesson’s artwork does that.”
Hesson’s large-scale, photorealistic oil paintings of cactus and other botanicals bloom all over Arnold’s office, where he uses natural, regenerative medicine to remedy physical pain. A portrait of bright, bottle-green agave greets patients at the check-in, while luminous prickly pear flowers light up a nearby waiting area. A hallway leading to Arnold’s exam rooms – each of them home to another Hesson painting – features a trio of succulents in gleaming greens and blues.
Arnold favors botanical medicine, and many of the pain-relief tinctures he prescribes are plant-based – thus the big, vibrant paintings of cactus and flowers that fill Arnold’s walls. But the good doctor prefers to keep that subtle message to himself.
“We don’t walk people up to Dyana’s paintings and say, ‘See? It’s a plant, and you’re being treated with plant-based medicine!’” Arnold says. “It’s subliminal. Our goal is to make people more vibrant and healthier, and these paintings are exactly that. The colors and the subjects are literally alive.”
Patients get the message in Hesson’s paintings on their own. “Isn’t that what you want from art?” Arnold asks. “To evoke a feeling? To bring about an emotion and have it be complementary to whatever’s going on around you? Having these paintings here is part of our patients’ healing experience.”
Dr. Lewis Albert Andres, M.D., FACS
The hallways, exam rooms and offices of Dr. Lewis Albert Andres’ North Scottsdale practice are hung with paintings, tapestries and three-dimensional sculptures from around the world. Most are gifts from patients he’s met on his many surgical mission trips.
Andres, who’s practiced cosmetic surgery since 2008 and specializes in breast cancer reconstruction, has made nearly three dozen such journeys since his first mission in 2007, during a residency at Mayo Clinic. “We went to Nicaragua, and it was life-changing,” he remembers. “Giving hope to people in indigent countries was big.”
Even bigger, he says, is the opportunity to teach the craft of healing to local surgeons in faraway villages. Andres makes most of his trips with Operation Smile, which offers cleft palate surgeries to impoverished communities worldwide.
“The people I meet are filled with gratitude for the work we do,” Andres says. “They have no money, but they insist on giving me something for my work. Sometimes it’s a chicken, or corn they’ve grown, or some fruit.”
Often, he’s given works of art. His first such gift, a large mixed-media piece of oil, watercolor and glitter that hangs in Andres’ office, remains his favorite. “Baile del Gueguense,” a surrealist painting by an artist named Ocampo, was a gift from a Nicaraguan family Andres met in 2007.
“They told me they didn’t think their child would ever be able to smile,” he recalls. “I think of their joy every day when I see this painting.”
Another canvas by local painter Kelby Friemel depicts a pink ribbon, an icon of breast cancer survivors, looped against a coarse white background. “I do a lot of breast cancer reconstruction,” Andres says. “It’s my passion. I bought this one from a Cancer Society charity auction.”
A large sculpture made of fused rings cut from tree trunks dominates a hallway between exam rooms. “That one’s from the Philippines,” Andres says. “It was done by a group of people who make their living creating furniture and art from local trees.”
It’s not unusual for the art to go unsigned, according to office manager Veronica Childers. “So many of the pieces in Dr. Andres’ collection are collaborations,” she explains. “They’re done by more than one person in a village, to show the whole community’s gratitude for the work he’s done.”
Surrounding himself with these gifts is less about sharing them with his patients, Andres admits, than it is a reminder to be grateful, to keep giving back. “These beautiful things also remind me of what brought me to medicine,” he says. “And that’s caring for people.”
Sobel Family Medicine
A woman seated in the waiting room of Sobel Family Medicine in North Phoenix watches as a visitor eyes the large framed photographs that cover the walls. “Wait until you see the ones they have inside,” the woman confides.
“We hear that a lot,” says office manager Brenda Wickander of the fine art photography by Dr. Bruce Sobel and his brother, Dr. Larry Sobel. “Patients are intrigued that their doctors are also artists. It gives them something to talk about besides their aches and pains.”
Relieving pain is the name of the Sobel family game. Larry is a family practitioner who specializes in pain management; Bruce is an osteopathic physician with an emphasis on muscle and bone disorders. People who come to the Sobels for physical therapy and chiropractic care also get a gander at the brothers’ gallery of fine art photographs.
Picture taking is a lifelong passion of the Sobels. Their father was a former United States Navy photographer who opened a chain of camera stores in Detroit in the 1950s. “We grew up surrounded by cameras, film, photo paper,” Bruce Sobel says. “We had our own darkroom.”
He points to a stunning image of a star-filled sky in the Grand Tetons that hangs on a hallway wall. “It took me four years to learn how to take this image. This was 4 in the morning, and it was pitch dark. I left the shutter open for 23 seconds and used an LED flashlight to do light-painting on the buildings you see.”
He often shoots in black and white, and his images frequently depict frenetic motion. In one, a dancer leaps into the air of an empty cobblestone street; in another, an elephant blows dust from its trunk, its giant head a silky gray blur. “That one was a slow exposure,” he explains. “I typically use a very fast camera, nine images per second.”
He stops in front of a sunny portrait of a leopard, snoozing in a tree. “I waited an hour for him to get into that position. It was worth it.”
Larry Sobel points out an image he shot in Kartchner Caverns. “It took me years to get in there to shoot,” he says. “I do mostly digital, and I try to manipulate the image as little as possible after I take a picture.”
His favorite is a photograph he took in Rhode Island, a night shot in moody blacks and blues. “Art is just a symbol,” the doctor says. “It’s something to wonder about, feel good about, to enjoy.”
“We were always looking for our father’s adulation,” he admits. “Trying to prove which of us was the better photographer. That rivalry continues to this day. We’re still trying to impress our father, who’s been dead for 10 years.”
In his father’s absence, Larry Sobel is happy to announce a victor in that competition. “My brother wins,” he says. “He’s always been a better photographer than me.”
Dr. Patricia Clark M.D., FACS
“I’ve lived a whole bunch of different lives,” Dr. Patricia Clark says with a laugh. “Some of them simultaneously.”
Clark has worked as a professional horse trainer, a seamstress for equestrian competitions and as an equine portrait artist. These days, her lives include breast and oncoplastic surgeon, along with abstract painter. When she joined Scottsdale’s Ironwood Cancer & Research Centers in 2016, Clark brought along some of her better canvases.
“People are scared when they come here,” she says. “They’ve got cancer, they think they might die, they worry about post-surgical deformities. I bring patients back here to look at the art, and if they’re artists themselves, they instantly connect to what they’re seeing. If not, I can tell them the story behind a painting I’ve done.”
She sometimes shows patients the pastel of three orchids hanging above her desk, a reminder of her early medical career. Clark did the drawing as a favor for a local art supply store while gathering medical credentials at a Colorado hospital. “This guy saw it in the window of the art supply and he bought it for a ridiculous amount of money. It paid my living expenses for months while I got credentialed.”
Two years later, the collector returned the painting to Clark. “I didn’t take it personally,” she says with another laugh. “I got paid for the piece, and I got to keep it.”
Clients like that story, she says. They also enjoy discussing the large painting in her exam room, an abstract crackled with texture and layers of glazing, inspired by a loft where she lived while studying medicine. “There was this rusted steel beam running across the ceiling, with all those great jade and celadon colors in a paint-crackled pattern.”
In the lower right-hand corner of the canvas is a shape that appears to be a woman’s breast. “That’s totally accidental,” Clark says. “I wasn’t studying to be a breast surgeon when I made this painting. At the time I hated breast surgery, because I couldn’t do oncoplastic surgery the way I wanted to, where I could work with another surgeon and reshape the breast while performing a lumpectomy.”
She’s since perfected those methods, and today combines plastic surgery techniques with traditional breast surgery procedures. “Reshaping a breast is like art in that it’s all about an aesthetic,” she muses.
Another painting in Clark’s waiting area has proven useful in calming patients. The untitled oil was originally dark and moody, all blacks and reds suggesting turmoil. Clark hated it and set the painting aside.
“But then I started over-painting it,” she says of the piece, which shines with swipes of silver and blue and a flash of navy that suggests a skyline or an ocean’s wave.
“It’s about decay,” Clark says. “And about how something beautiful can come out of decay and destruction. Which is one way to think about my work with breast cancer, and also about my art.”
Dr. Alicia Cowdrey, M.D.
“The paintings on the walls of our clinics are more than just decoration,” says Dr. Alicia Cowdrey, the outpatient medical director at Valleywise Behavioral Health Services. “They’re sending a message to other patients that there’s hope. Things will get better.”
The displayed work comes from Art Awakenings, a program founded in 2000 and funded by community donations and regional behavioral health authorities. Artists receive 80 percent of profits from the work they sell, while the other 20 percent is used to buy art supplies for the program. Participants use visual art disciplines – painting, sculpture, ceramics – to facilitate healing.
“The program gives them a chance to express their feelings visually,” Cowdrey says. “And then the completed work can represent their healing.”
Cowdrey first became aware of Art Awakenings at a charity event a few years ago. She’s since seen to it that the program’s artists hang in all three of the Valleywise clinics. Several participants have told Cowdrey that putting their pain or sorrow into a work of art is like letting go of those emotions.
“And buying their art is another way of honoring them, and honoring their healing,” she says. “We hang it on the wall here, and it’s a way of saying ‘You made it through, and here’s the proof.’”
Among Cowdrey’s personal favorites is a mixed-media piece depicting three-dimensional butterflies in rich pastel colors. “They start small at the bottom and fan out, and the message from the artist is one of hope and recovery,” she explains.
The piece is unsigned, Cowdrey points out. “We don’t ever ask that the artists remain anonymous. But sometimes, when you’re in recovery, that’s a safer place to be.” Still more of the Art Awakenings pieces are proudly signed by those who created them.
Another of her favorites isn’t by an Art Awakenings client, but represents, Cowdrey says, the very essence of the program and of healing one’s mental health. It’s by the painter Max Rowland, and depicts the word “hope” in gradated colors that become increasingly more bright. Rowland’s piece demonstrates the trajectory of a patient’s mental health decline, according to Cowdrey.
“It shows what someone goes through when their brain is playing tricks on them,” Cowdrey says. “And people who see it notice that the paint gets brighter as it goes up. It’s a really great message to send: that things will always get brighter. You can use art to create hope and make things better.”
Associated Retinal Consultants
“I’m a complete philistine,” Dr. Henry M. Kwong, says. “I have no taste. I shop at Costco.”
Kwong then proceeds to discuss, with the skill of a seasoned art critic, the work of Florida artist Jon Allen that adorns the offices of Associated Retina Consultants in Phoenix. Allen’s work, Kwong says, combines the nature-based palette of impressionist painter Claude Monet with the pop-art sensibilities of Andy Warhol. The artist’s shapes, Kwong continues, catch and bend light like the lens of the human eye.
He pauses in his description. “I didn’t say I don’t have a good education,” Kwong says with a chuckle. “I said I have no taste.”
The striking collection of paint-on-metal pieces was selected by a former office manager who was a fan of Allen’s work. Allen’s reflective, color-drenched surfaces are, Kwong insists, the perfect choice for people who visit the clinic.
“The majority of our patients have either low vision or altered vision,” he explains. “But even so, they can appreciate this art. Because, like the best impressionist painting, you don’t have to see the details to love it. It’s one of the ways that this art is unique.”
So, too, is Associated Retina Consultants, the largest independent retina-only practice in Arizona. “We’re not like most eye doctors,” Kwong says. “We specialize in macular degeneration and diabetes-related vision problems, and our goal is to keep patients seeing, rather than providing perfect vision.”
The bold colors and metallic backgrounds of Allen’s work grab the light in Kwong’s waiting room and the clinic’s hallways. “There’s something about the way he distresses the metal,” Kwong says. “It provides an interesting stimulus that people love, probably for the same reason we love the bright color and movement of a lava lamp.”
Kwong encourages patients and other visitors to interact with Allen’s art. “Most museums tell you not to touch the artwork, not to get too close,” he says. “So the only way to enjoy the art is with your vision. Some people who come to us can’t really do that, so we tell them, ‘Stand close to it, touch it, enjoy the art.’”