Portrait of the artist, oil on canvas, by Warren Prosperi.
I was born and raised in a small coal mining village, part of Nanticoke, PA. During childhood, my father was killed in an accident in the coal mines. My mother had incapacitating headaches and I saw a TV show called “Ben Casey”. I decided to become a neurosurgeon like him. There was little or no art in this little town save for the statues and paintings in the churches. It was the Sputnik-era. I became a science-nerd and went on to study chemistry at Bucknell University and ultimately went to Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital to become a neurosurgeon.
My life has been blessed. I have been the Chairman of Neurosurgery at Georgetown University and at the Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard Medical School. My specialty has been surgery for complex brain tumors and my scientific research has involved the discovery of genes that cause brain and nervous system tumors and the creation of genetically-engineered oncolytic viruses. These are viruses that can grow in and kill cancer cells without harming the surrounding normal cells. These viruses have entered multiple advanced clinical cancer trials, spawned several companies, and have led to a large and developing field of scientific inquiry with multiple laboratories worldwide studying various oncolytic viruses for the therapy of many types of cancer.
When I was a teenager, I went to the World’s Fair in New York. The Vatican had Michelangelo’s “Pieta” on display. I saw it for perhaps 20 seconds. I cried. Not a cool thing for a teenage boy to do! But I never saw anything so beautiful in my life. From this time forward, I was always interested in sculpture but never had the time to pursue it. One day, my wife saw a sign at Acorn Studio in Marblehead announcing “Adult Sculpture Classes”. I signed up and Jack Highberger taught me how to sculpt in clay and Charlie Hahn taught me how to cast in bronze. I later connected with Carol Driscoll and Bill Nutt at the Carving Studio and Sculpture Center in West Rutland, Vermont and learned to carve stone. I shared many wonderful discussions with Lucia and Warren Prosperi who helped me learn how to conceptualize the making of art. The amazing thing about having this late-in-life career is that I now have a lifetime of experiences, thoughts, and ideas to express that I would not have had as a teenager or young man.
Of all the types of sculpture, stone sculpture, in particular, is most like neurosurgery. It, of course, takes some dexterity and fine motor coordination. But it also has other related features. Both are helped by knowledge of anatomy. The neurosurgeon is daily taking two-dimensional images from a CT or MRI scan and translating them into three-dimensions for surgery; the same is true for the sculptor. The neurosurgeon uses stereotactic devices for transferring points in three-dimensional space; the sculptor uses a “pointing-machine” for the same purpose. Finally, when the neurosurgeon makes an incision into human flesh, there is no turning back. Risks must be taken. He can never be exactly sure what he will find on the inside or what may happen during the operation. In surgery on the brain, there is no tolerance for mistakes. I have known some artists who will not sculpt in stone for faults will be found within the stone and half-way through the work, a crack may develop or a finger may fall off (It has happened to me!). The risks are high. With clay, you just put the finger back on but with stone that is not possible. So my life as a neurosurgeon has trained me for this artform.