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OUT OF OFFICE Art with a Capital "A"

By: Mary Garthwaite, MBBS, PhD, FRCS(Urol) | Posted on: 01 Oct 2022

In early 2018 I was in my early 40s and enjoying a busy, expanding, and fulfilling career as a consultant urological surgeon in the north of England. I had chosen surgery probably because of a lifelong love of being creative with my hands and an innate desire to be useful to others. Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer and everything changed. Life went on hold during 18 months of rigorous treatment. During the initial months of treatment, I unexpectedly lost both my mother and father in quick succession. Normally a highly resilient person, seemingly in complete control of my life, I now felt like a hollow vessel made of wafer-thin glass that could shatter into a million pieces at any moment. So what got me through this dark time? The answer in my case was art.

Luckily for me, 6 months before my diagnosis I did something to help remedy what I can now see as a woeful work-life balance. I signed up for a 1-day portrait painting course having not painted anything for over 20 years, let alone painted a portrait. The evening before, I dashed to my local art shop and stood there trying to figure out which of an endless array of paintbrushes, paints, and canvases would suffice. In the end it didn’t really matter, because it was the act of making art that was so transformative. Whilst engrossed in the process I hadn’t thought about anything else. The workshop transported me to a different world and I came away energized, having rediscovered the importance of art in my life. Happily, my initial effort drew positive gasps of amazement from family and friends, and the tutor promptly signed me up for her regular evening class, which I promised to make as often as work would allow.

During my cancer journey I used art whenever I could to escape from the realities of treatment and grief. Unfortunately, my confrontation with cancer was harsh and it has sadly brought my career as a urologist to an untimely end. However, art helped me find my way through the grief that comes with losing health, a career, and loved ones. It now sustains me, makes me happy, and has given me the motivation to find new ways to help others who are facing their own challenges.

I remember back to my 16-year-old self, rationalizing her life choices by telling herself that “art can always be a hobby, but medicine can’t.” Then the realities of a career in surgery kick in; you blink and 20 years pass and you’ve only picked up a paintbrush once or twice. Work-life balance is an art in itself, and one that few of us get right. Burnout is prolific amongst high-achieving professionals, yet it is only recently that it started to be recognized as an issue within the UK surgical workforce. It is likely to be under-reported due to the stigmatization, often self-imposed, of surgeons failing to cope with the ever-increasing demands of the job, on top of the responsibilities and burdens they may carry in their personal lives. We are meant to be able to be on top of it all, at all times, and then some.

Figure 1. Mother and Child, bronze sculpture by Malcolm Lucas. I am fascinated by the expression of human emotions in sculptural form, especially when partially abstracted. This is the first piece I’ve had cast in solid bronze.

Art, in its myriad forms, can have enormously positive effects on both those who make it and those who observe it. Whilst recovering from a brutal round of chemotherapy, my thoughts turned to how I could promote art within urology. The British Association of Urologists (BAUS) website has a fantastic virtual museum (, developed and curated by my good friend Jonathan Goddard. If we could have a virtual museum, why not a virtual art gallery? In 2020 we built an “upstairs” extension to the virtual museum, now home of the BAUS virtual art gallery. It encompasses 3 exhibition halls covering all types of 2D and 3D art. It is still in its infancy. Getting former colleagues to exhibit is a challenge, even though there is a wealth of talent out there. Examples of artwork exhibited in the gallery can be seen in Figures 1–3.

In addition to the virtual gallery, we established a BAUS Members’ Photographic Competition. This is held in the run-up to the annual conference. The inaugural competition coincided with the delivery of a virtual annual conference in response to the pandemic. The theme chosen was “Seeing it Through.” Submissions reflected a personal interpretation of the title, be it the view through the camera lens or how members were coping professionally and personally with the challenges presented both by the pandemic and the modern working life of a urologist. Figure 4 shows one of the highly commended entries. This year’s theme was “A New ­Perspective.” Many things have changed over the last 2 years and we have learned a lot about ourselves and all the different communities to which we belong—family, local, workplace, national, and global. Submission images reflected the different views members now saw when looking through their camera. Figures 5 and 6 show the winning entry and the runner up. All competition submissions are displayed publicly on the virtual art gallery pages of the BAUS website

Figure 2. Scenes from the Routeburn Walk 2, oil painting by Simon Harrison.

Figure 3. Bill, oil painting by Mary Garthwaite. In the world of portraiture it seems that smiles are often frowned upon, but this may just be because teeth are seen as challenging to paint by a lot of artists. However, if your subject is a naturally jovial person then you must portray them truthfully in order to capture their personality.

Figure 4. Highly Commended entry to the BAUS Member’s Photographic Competition 2021. Operating in Full PPE, by Brendan Berry.

Figure 5. Winner of the BAUS Members’ Photographic competition 2022. Green is for Go, by Tony Browning. This photo of the village shop at Lephin in Glendale on the Isle of Skye reveals an unusual access system used during the pandemic restrictions. The fact that it is now permanently on green suggests that life is returning to normal.

Figure 6. Runner up of the BAUS Members’ Photographic competition 2022. The Lack of Hospital Beds Paradox, by Theodora Stasinou. This photograph portrays the paradox of hospital beds lying unused while cases are cancelled due to a lack of beds. Consider the quintessence of a hospital bed; acknowledge it and treat it with respect.

Surgery and art have a long and closely linked history. In UK urology we can name Sir Charles Bell (1774–1842), Sir Henry Thompson (1820–1904), and Professor John Blandy (1927–2011) as celebrated surgeon artists. From the earliest depictions of disease and surgical intervention in ancient cultures, through the anatomical drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci and Rembrandt’s “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp,” to more modern depictions of surgery, such as Barbara Hepworth’s “Hospital Drawings” and Jonathan Yeo’s “You Are Only Young Twice” and “”Skin Deep” exhibitions, art and surgery have walked hand in hand. But you don’t have to be a professional artist to get something positive from creating or appreciating art. All art is special. All art is Art with a capital “A.”