2022/Jun/19 Portrait of a Neurologist By A Neurologist - an interview with Dr. Peter Tatum

 

Peter Tatum and Tom Sabin and Painting

[From left to right: Artist Peter Tatum, The Portrait of Dr. Sabin, Dr. Sabin himself]

Stanley:
Tell me about yourself

Tatum:
I’m an artist first and foremost. Among other things I happen to be a doctor and neurologist, and I’ve worked really hard at that, especially from what I’ve come from but at the end of the day what I am is simply an artist.

 

Stanley:
And you knew that art was your main theme even when applying into medicine and neurology. Did you have to hide that or did you assert that straight on in conversation with program directors and faculty?

Tatum:
When I first met with my program director he asked what my goals are for residency, and I explained to him that one of my main goals here was to paint a large mural on the hospital helipad. It almost happened, and that’s the really great thing about Tufts. The chairman and program director didn’t even flinch at that idea. They listened to that idea and thought, “How do we realize that for this resident?” They thought it would be a positive for the residency and the group of residents I work with. There were some logistical and municipal hurdles which ultimately prevented it, but even the higher-level TUFTS administration was onboard with spirit of the idea which is what I appreciate most. Obviously getting people in and assessing their strokes on that helipad is important. The art could be everlasting and represent the work that everyone has done here.

 

Stanley:
So bottom line?

Tatum:
I want to create something—bottom line. And creativity is what I look for in others. It’s not impressive to me to meet someone who is just regurgitating what someone else already figured out. When I talk with my mentor and friend, Dr. Thomas Sabin, he looks at the case in front of him and really thinks about new ideas. He’s got imagination in his work because he’s working with the creative elements of neurology—not just some rote reciting of trial data. He knows the facts, but he’s going above and beyond those facts to do something new for that patient and finding something new about neurology in the process. That is an art. I think the reason Dr. Sabin took an interest in me—even though we are very different in our goals and tastes—is because I’m offering a different perspective, and that can lead to something imaginative and new, too.

 

Stanley:
Residency is demanding, all-consuming for so many people. But you’ve seen to keep your art a priority. And you’re prolific! That can’t be easy.

Tatum:
The reason I went really hard with my art, in all honesty? With a family of six living in Boston, living below the poverty line for most of my time—No heat, no electric some time—what they pay just doesn’t cut it here. I am standing in a neurology clinic or on the hospital wards getting messages that my heat or electric is getting turned off, there’s no food in the fridge, my car getting repossessed, my cell phone getting turned off. Stuff like that is still happening very often, even as of last week. To be frank, most of my brainpower here in Boston over the past 3 years has gone to simply making sure my wife and 4 kids have the means to take a shower and have something in a refrigerator. Art not only provided for my family, it has also started conversations with many people and outlets that would not have happened with medicine alone. I’ve probably sold at least 500 paintings in my life but in December 2021 I had the most orders for portraits of any holiday season in my life. I think I did like 25 portraits in a three week period while I was the senior resident on the inpatient service. Didn’t sleep much that month.

 

Stanley:
That’s like the total reversal of what someone would think about—doctors vs artists and what’s going to pay the bills. Starving doctors are today’s trope it seems, not starving artists. Let’s talk about your style and how it developed. I was looking over the Tom Sabin painting, which I want to get into the nitty gritty in a bit. But the style is BIG. It feels BIG. There’s a lot of content in there, a lot of detail and intricacy—and yet it feels like something expansive I’d see on a billboard not on a little picture frame.

Tatum:
Exactly. That’s supposed to be a mural. This is just the portrait version of it. Like a test, but could be scaled up. About my style: I got surrealism from Dali. He uses hard edges and fading colors. Although I do not use much stippling—little dots—and fuzziness like Monet, I like the impressionist idea of having multiple experiences depending on where you view the piece from. True impressionism tends to break apart into nothing as you move closer to the piece. My pieces do the opposite simply by using smaller scale details which you see more and more of as you move closer to the piece. So when you stand back you see one face, you move closer and see 20 other faces, then move very close and see small text creating mid-tones. The final prominent element of my style is transparency. Neither surrealists nor impressionists were very much into creating transparency through color theory. I learned transparency techniques by studying graffiti artists in the train tunnels in NYC and New Jersey. Specifically, the artist I learned this from was Themo of the PFE crew. He rolled red paint in a wide rectangle and then overtop outlined letters which stretched beyond the left and right limits of this rectangle. Everything outside the rectangle was full-color. Everything inside the rectangle was different red tones. The overall impression was that it looked like a red-tinting plexiglass was on top of his piece. It had depth. Since I saw that in the late 1990’s, I have been trying to combine Salvador Dali’s surrealism and the impressionistic multi-experience with what I learned in the train tunnels.

 

Stanley:
Underground meets otherworldly. Love it. So tell me about this portrait you did of Dr. Tom Sabin. It’s an amazing piece.

Tatum:
What does any human being want when they go into a new environment? We want to be loved. And I think Dr. Sabin epitomizes that kind of love. Where I grew up when I was young I’ve been in some trouble. Some people can sense that and it bothers some people, but he could look past that. About six months into my residency when I’m starting really get to look around and get a sense of things, I’m starting to really pay attention to this old-time, very special doctor, eminent, you know? At Tufts they have these meetings called “Doctor Sabin Rounds” where they bring an especially difficult case and tell him the history and he then interviews and examines the patient. He usually gets the correct diagnosis in a really creative way. So from everything in my life I’m seeing this guy in his suit and bowtie, and I was thinking, “There’s no way this guy’s going to like me.” But it was just the opposite!

To come here to Tufts and have a prominent person like Dr. Sabin come up to me, respect me, and take time to listen to me, and ultimately to value the things that I do—he values my art and music even though you aren’t going to see him at a graffiti spot or a hiphop show—really means a lot. He meets me where I’m coming from and he understands I learn differently and he tailors it. But it’s important to him because it’s important to me. He respects someone’s passion because he’s passionate about his art (neurology), too. He means a lot to me, so I wanted to honor this incredible person that I consider my friend. It doesn’t have anything to do with Neurology—though because it’s him and he has so much to do with Boston’s neurology it does second-hand. But for me, primarily, this painting is a personal thing. It's a gift to him and his family, and an opportunity for the hospital to show one of the greats that has been here.

 

Stanley:
So what was the first step?

Tatum:
So what I did was got in touch with his family in late 2019, and told his family I’m going to make this painting, and I asked them about all the things he loves and cares about. And they shared photos and stories and ideas. That became the basis of what I was going to try and mash-up in this portrait.

 

Stanley:
Had you ever done a portrait like this before?

Tatum:
This would be the fifth painting I’ve ever done like this since 2001. This is as complex as I’ve ever done. The three ones I’ve done before were 4x4 and were self-portraits in ‘01, ‘07, and 2016. The reason I made them is that they were album covers. In 2016, I did a self-portrait kind of like this, incorporating my whole life in it and that was for my wedding. I also created a portrait of my wife in the same vein.

 

Stanley:
How long does it take you to do a portrait like this?

Tatum:
I started this painting in 2019, and I’ve been working on it for 15 minutes a day over the past three years. It took a lot of time to integrate that transparency style with the tons of stuff overlapping the big face in the middle. But If I am hypothetically working on art full time and nothing else, I could finish something like this in one to two weeks.

 

Stanley:
There’s so much to unpack in this painting. So many references! Can you help us read it?

Portrait of Dr. Sabin

Tatum:
It’s got some transparent images of several things meaningful to him overlapping his face. His sons and daughters and grandchildren are on this with their families. He has a brother and his brother’s wife on the top right. His mentor Derek Denny-Brown, who trained him back in the day is on there, too. The top left is the house he’s been living in all these years. The top right—that’s the symphony hall he goes to [The Boston Symphony]. He’s got his dog sitting in there next to one of the lighthouses he visits which stretches through his left eye. On the left, sideways, it says Tufts which is connected to Chinatown’s gait and the teddy bear statue that sits in front of the hospital. The bear statue is holding building blocks that say “TMC,” for Tufts Medical Center. On the right of the TUFTS letters there is the Floating Hospital Boat, which was really a TUFTS hospital that used to be a boat. The boat is connected to the New England Dispensary building which became the New England Medical Center prior to being the Tufts medical center. There are also elephants walking around to represent Tufts Jumbos [the mascot for the University is P.T. Barnum’s stuffed elephant, Jumbo]. Opposite the TUFTS lettering is a reference to the Carville Louisiana Leprosarium where Dr. Sabin worked several years at the beginning of his career. When he was there, Dr. Sabin would do these detailed exams that could go on for dozens of hours, even days, down there in Louisiana. It’s how he learned so much about the peripheral nervous system, I think. Up above Dr. Sabin’s head on the top middle of the painting is a wild, abstract lettering that says, “Sabin.” On the bottom right is a picture of the boat that he owns—he sails a lot. As I draw that boat, the sail transparently overlaps Carville, his face, four different people in his family. On the bottom middle of his bowtie is a train like the T coming out at the viewer to the bottom right using one-point perspective into the neck. A Boston Teaparty boat overlaps other family members in the bottom left of the piece. The Boston City Hospital stretches through the whole width of the forehead. This is where Thomas Sabin learned neurology from Denny-Brown. I actually copied the shape of the Boston City Hospital buildings off of the picture on the diploma hanging in Dr. Sabin’s clinic office. Some of those buildings aren’t standing anymore. For accents, I took a paint marker or pen and I wrote NEUROLOGY, NEUROLOGY, NEUROLOGY over and over. I used that motif to make shadows and cross hatched at times when I needed something to be darker or give the impression of more texture. When you add it all up, the viewer stands back and sees a huge Tom Sabin face at 50 fifty feet, then at 10 feet sees the composite details like I just described, and at 3 feet sees hundreds of letters and little details. Right now it’s 4 feet by 4 feet. It’s mostly acrylic paint brush, paint marker, ink, and pencil on canvas.

Stanley:
Where’s the painting going to go?

Tatum:
This portrait will hang permanently in the Neurology department at Tufts. I will be donating a large print, owned by the Sabin family, to the hospital to do honor to the great Thomas Sabin who gave so much to Tufts Medical Center.



Stanley:
What’s next for you and where can people look you up to find out more about you and your work outside of clinical neurology?

Tatum:
I’m doing a interview with Josh Budhu for the IDEAS section of Neurology (the Green Journal), and I have a few more interviews lined up as well. An author and publishing house are helping me create an autobiography. A pilot has been filmed, edited to completion, and submitted to some TV outlets with some interest in a multipart docuseries around what I do with my art, music, and neurology. Not sure what will come of that, but we will see. And then I’ll be going up to Dartmouth for my fellowship, and who knows after that. I’ve got so many ideas, and I want to go where I can try them out. People can look me up and follow my activities at the following websites:
- OGneuro.com is one of my websites where I combine art, film, music, and neurology. I recently created a music video called stroke code which describes the vessels of the brain and includes a film where a main character walks around various cities, experiencing covid and social justice, and people are united by the masks they wear which they “tip” to one another as a salutation. This site will eventually include various lectures and creative science projects.
- Hyphen-one.com is my old-school hip-hop project (est. 1998) which currently features a song called “Jelly” which I made all with beatbox (mouth percussion, bass, and instrument noise). I had my sister, Barbie “Ruby” Tatum sing the song. The video features a roller dance crew and takes place at the world famous Rucker Park in Harlem, NYC. We are planning a new dance release soon called, “Crazy Lady.”
- Wullybully.org is a website with projects and videos that I made with my kids to promote learning and creativity. The most recent project there is a rendition of Michael Jackson, ‘Billy Jean” with the words changed to “Wully Bee Is Not My Bumble” and a film of a well-known local break-dancer head spinning in a bumble bee suit.
- @hyphen1artist is my Instagram which is sometimes private and sometimes public depending on what I have going on.
- But at the end of the day, all this stuff is meant to be seen in person, on the streets, in the clubs, galleries or wherever.