Physician/painter is a true renaissance man: he not only paints and heals patients, Zen Chuang is also a philosopher, professor, student, gardener, traveler and Web master
Bill Jr. Beggs
ABN Contributing Editor The practice of medicine is an art, and the practice of art is good medicine. For family practitioner Chen-Chieh Chuang, M.D., both practices are healing arts.
Known as Zen and C-C (for Chen-Chieh), Chuang–pronounced “strong” without the “s”–has been a watercolorist since he was a small boy in his native Taiwan, where he began painting in the traditional Chinese brushstroke manner. His work first drew notice from his mother, who enrolled him in English classes so that he would be able to communicate, were he to eventually travel abroad to accept international awards for his art.
And travel he has–but first as a physician, with his easel and brushes accompanying him wherever he goes. At age 37, Chuang already has taken in much of the United States, treating people in medically underserved places “from the Painted Desert of Arizona to the arctic tundra in Alaska; from the foothills of the Maine mountains to the countryside in the Carolinas.”
The small solo family practice he has maintained in a working-class section of Taunton, MA, is no more than a 4-minute drive from his new home and office in Raynham, where the plaster dust has barely settled in the colonial house into which he hopes to have moved his practice this month. The newly renovated home is situated on an acre of land that will provide Chuang with newborn inspiration, once Spring has awakened the world.
The most recent bit of traveling has been by Chuang’s mother, who came to the States to smooth the upheaval of moving–and to help her artist-cum-physician settle into his new surroundings, with offices on the first floor, a studio upstairs and a gallery in the detached garage, if all goes according to plan.
Chuang might have worked as an itinerant physician much longer, serving with VISTA and helping heal those with few healthcare options, but his friends and family had grown restless with his extended absences, “complaining that I did not exist for them anymore.” One day he hopes to experience the Pacific Northwest–Washington is one of a dozen or more states in which he is licensed to practice medicine-but Chuang makes the-most of wherever he is, no matter what he is doing. He begins almost every morning with brush in hand.
“I paint because it is a form of meditation,” Chuang says. “It also helps me notice the ‘coins in life’–visual delights that are strewn here and there in my everyday life, and gives me an opportunity to share the wonders of these sights.
“In a sense, art heals me,” he says. “And I hope to use my art to enhance the lives of others as well.”
Selling his works–the majority of them landscapes and botanical studies–was not the result of a brainstorm. Nor was it an easy decision. It took some prodding from a friend for Chuang to show his work at a local nonprofit gallery.
“The joy my work brought to the viewers of that show was astounding,” Chuang recalls, and he accepted invitations to exhibit for the benefit of nonprofit organizations throughout the Northeast. It was only after slowing down from his life as an itinerant physician that he managed to participate in such prestigious outdoor festivals as Rhode Island’s Wickford Art Festival and the Mystic Art Festival in Connecticut.
“The responses from these shows were overwhelming,” says Chuang, who only recently decided to exhibit at Artexpo New York and take his work to an even wider audience.
Since Chuang paints at a pace that could only be called “natural”–he finishes five to seven large watercolor pieces a year–he will be exhibiting giclees in New York: “I paint … correct the electronic files for the images, and print the giclees entirely by myself.”
This may seem like a one-man show, which in many ways it is. But Chuang says he could not manage his multiple lives without the dedication and love of his family and friends. He will count on the expertise and insight of others as he dips a toe into the waters of art marketing. In any event, there’s no rush.
A visit to Chuang’s Web site, which he designed and maintains by himself, is to unhurriedly stroll through a bright, soothing world. Upon arriving at the home page of www.fromearthtosky.com, one is welcomed by details from Chuang’s art–a single sunflower, sun-kissed clouds against a blue sky–and not so much a mission statement as words of encouragement: “Paint Our Days with Colors, Fill Our Lives with Beauty!”
The site illustrates the sense of wonder and awe that Chuang wishes to share with those he touches, both as a physician and artist.
Upon venturing into the cyber-gallery, clicking on a work, whether it’s of a sunrise at Cape Cod or a single fallen autumn leaf, will reveal an area of greater detail. Studying biochemistry and practicing art have developed in Chuang a unique way of viewing, comprehending and communicating the nature of things: “What’s underneath a brilliant leaf shining in the sun are billions of cells operating on the microscopic level.”
Chuang graduated Brown University and completed his medical training at Yale. This year will mark the third session of a class he has taught for medical students at Brown: “Art and Medicine.” The course, an elective for first-year medical students, “was designed to give students a chance to explore the roles of art and art-making in the practice of medicine, to enhance their observation and communication skills–and to encourage them to become creative, sensitive physicians.”
Chuang’s resume demonstrates this. He taught art for a time at a public high school in New York City. He completed his residency training at a hospital in innercity Providence. In the early 1990s, with the encouragement of the medical school, he took off a year from Yale and left New Haven to live and work in Bridgeport, CT, where he conducted nutrition research for low-income families in the crime-ridden housing projects.
For respite, he would paint in his apartment, where he would sometimes hear gunfire outside. Today, Chuang points out that Bridgeport is the country’s most dangerous urban area. While in Bridgeport, Chuang also wrote and illustrated a children’s book about a little bird who finally finds his voice … and a friend. Visitors to Chuang’s Web site may also enjoy “Gee-Chi” (the English-language equivalent is “tweet tweet”).
Chuang’s other Web site is devoted to his practice: www.LakesideFP.com. Photographs he has taken during his travels enhance a visit to the site, which provides a peek at his philosophies and those of his staff. Chuang tries to limit the number of patients he sees every day so that he may spend an adequate amount of time with each, whether newborns or the terminally ill. He marvels that between those ends of the health spectrum are those of us who get through a day absent of medical crises. Those of us who are relatively healthy and active adults may take this for granted, “like air.”
Chuang relishes his opportunity to “watch the life cycle every day.”
And he hopes to incorporate art therapy into his practice, as well. Not surprisingly, his office walls are in soothing colors, with complementary artwork. Throughout the world of medicine, this has become more integral to the healing process as research demonstrates the effect on mood that colors have on patients, and how certain hues are more suitable for waiting rooms, others for surgical areas.
For Chuang, the world and life itself is much more than what meets the eye. This is apparent in the sense of serenity evoked in each piece. He doesn’t paint flowers from a bouquet or stems in a vase. Nor does a Chuang landscape evolve from a photograph.
“I can recall what I see with my naked eye,” he says. “Unlike a lot of Western paintings that originate from definite models, my paintings are all composites. For example, when I paint a flower, I study flowers of the same kind in different settings and from different angles, and finally make a composite of what I consider the visual essence representing the spirit of the flower.
“This allows for a lot of artistic license, problem solving, and fun.” Chuang also could have expressed that thought in Spanish, having lived in Argentina when his family moved there while he was in his teens. Languages are part of his quest for lifelong learning; he presently is studying Portuguese. He is ceaselessly inquisitive, inviting comments on his Web site. “Gee Chi,” for example, has yet to be published because he is not certain that the story is just so. He has accomplished much and knows there is so much more yet to do, but he is not one to hurry. A flower takes as much time as it needs to grow.
Chuang’s new home, office, studio and gallery-to-be are the embodiment of his ideal. The acre of land is to be for reflection, and will feature a “healing garden.”
Last fall, the garden began to take shape when Brown University students helped plant thousands of bulbs. From there, Mother Nature will take her course … and, as he has done throughout his life, Dr. Chuang will admire the garden and its visitors, whether insects, birds or people, participate in helping raise spirits and continue to heal–both with his hands, and with his brushes.
“One of the important lessons I learned from previous traveling was that there are always things to learn, and things to see, wherever I am. As long as I keep my eyes open, I’ll be a tourist in life, no matter where I am.”
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