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A Physician-Lawyer-Artist Shares His Love for the Human Heart and Art

Dr. Paul Kolker, 82-years old, is a cardiothoracic surgeon, contemporary artist, and attorney based in New York City. His long and illustrious career began when he started school at Yeshiva College in 1954. After scoring in the top 1% of test-takers on the MCAT, he was accepted early to medical school and offered a scholarship by SUNY Downstate College of Medicine. He enrolled at SUNY Downstate without finishing his undergraduate degree and graduated cum laude in 1960.

 After graduation, Dr. Kolker began his internship in surgery at Beth-Israel Hospital in Boston, working with the Harvard Surgical Service. Then, due to the Berlin Crisis in June of 1961, Dr. Kolker was drafted into the Air Force and commissioned as a Captain. After 3 weeks of training in Montgomery, Alabama, he served as the Chief of Air Force Clinics at the 3563 Air Force Hospital in Waco, Texas. His experiences in the Air Force were instrumental in shaping his understanding of socialized medicine and medical care in the armed forces.

After his military service, Dr. Kolker returned to a residency spot at Long Island Jewish Hospital in New York. He then completed his NIH fellowship at Harvard Medical School, where he worked on the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital transplant team. After further training at the Mayo Clinic and LIJ, Dr. Kolker helped to establish the heart center at St. Francis Hospital. Subsequently, he served as Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery at North Shore Hospital, created an HMO with over 5,000 practitioners spanning Suffolk County, Nassau County, and Queens, earned a law degree from Hofstra University, and worked with a medical malpractice company.

All the while, he created art through sculpting, drawing, and utilizing innovative techniques. He is currently working on his 60th show in 17 years in New York City, which will open in late September.

I first spoke with Dr. Kolker when I found out about his diverse skillset, but I had the pleasure of speaking with him again for DWC.

Ryan: When did you begin to have an interest in producing art?

Dr. Kolker: After the age of 5, I knew I was not good with any musical instruments, so my after-school projects were focused in the studio arts. I became a very skilled draftsman with an almost photographic ability to draw. I began oil painting at age 10, but years later, my wife didn’t want my kids to breathe in the volatile compounds of oil paint, so I switched to acrylic paint. In high school, I was the head of the art newspaper. I was the art editor of the Yeshiva University Commentator and the Graduating Journal of Yeshiva College. In medical school, I did pro bono work as the class artist, drawing sketches for everybody’s research papers since you couldn’t take pictures on microscopes at that time.

Beyond this, my wife was interested in art and thus we had an artistic family. My children went to art camps, my daughter went to the liberal arts school Bennington College, and one of my sons was a pre-med art major before becoming a plastic surgeon.

Ryan: What prompted you to get a law degree?  

Dr. Kolker: In 1986 I was appointed to be on some regional judiciary panels to serve as a physician advocate for medical malpractice. They felt that my background would be advanced if I went to law school, so I applied to Hofstra Law School in the spring of 1986 because it was conveniently close to me. I began classes in August of 1986 and I started learning legal writing, which was a new way to present my thoughts. I eventually learned legal research methods and took 2-3 years of courses with Professor John Ryan, the lead advisor in New York for healthcare reform.

Ryan: Have your physical abilities in art and surgery improved through your practice?

Dr. Kolker: When I was finishing my sophomore year in college, I knew I wanted medicine. Which came first: the chicken or the egg, the art or the medicine- for me I think it was the art. After all, I was an artist for the first 20 years of my life and suddenly I was becoming a doctor. What I learned and studied in the arts was this empathic drive that I was able to carry into my medical career. Ultimately, because I was a hands-on person, as artists are, I went into a hands-on specialty: cardiothoracic surgery.

Ryan: What piece of art are you most proud of and why? 

Dr. Kolker: My children are the most important piece of art I’ve created.

Ryan: Well, what about your actual pieces of art?

Dr. Kolker: In the early 1970s, when I had developed my dot theory and color theory, I created a sculpture of 94 spheres that balanced on each other and formed a pyramid. I’ve painted them in different colors and it developed my theory about how we look at things. Each sphere represents a dot and that dot became a universe, but the whole of the sculpture, which could represent a universe, could also be a dot. That idea was enhanced in the 1970s when I worked with a projector TV called the Advent TV.

I had actually operated on the head of a precursor company to Panasonic TV, so with that connection, I had access to technologies 5-10 years before they were available to the general community. The technology I adopted in my medical practice has even been used in my art. My art can be categorized as New Media, but it has a deeper message if you look at my website and press releases about my shows.

Ryan: Tell me a bit about your studio.

Dr. Kolker: My gallery is 4500 square feet with 22 foot high ceilings and I have been been in the same facility for 17 years. I’m pretty involved in visiting art museums and I go around the neighborhood to see art shows, since I am walking distance from some and a short ride from most. I also have a staff of young people who work with me. I generally have interns with an interest in the arts who work with me over the summer.

Ryan: Why did you stop working with the HMO?

Dr. Kolker: Even though North Shore backed out, it was a substantial healthcare company going from 1995 to the financial recession in 2007 to 2008. That was when it started to come down. I think that HMOs would have endured if times had been different. Investment firms were failing and didn’t want to invest in healthcare. They are still reluctant to do that, which has been the problem with Obamacare.

Ryan: What do you do in your spare time?

Dr. Kolker: What I’ve really been doing is continuing to study. I have been reading books that I didn’t have the chance to read 40 to 50 years ago, and I’m using them as a background for future exhibitions. I’m also working on a very large monograph called “Art As Experiment.” Hopefully, I will get it published in a year or two once I complete a mockup for the book.

I’m actively working on a catalog of an exhibition called “Gesundheit Reimagined” which is about healthcare from the time of government sponsored healthcare under Teddy Roosevelt over 100 years ago through the Medicare/Medicaid legislation of July 1965, Hillarycare, Romneycare, and Obamacare. Whether or not they are the right way to go, they still play an important role in paving the future.

Ryan: What books do you recommend?

Dr. Kolker: I’d recommend the book that I am almost done reading, called The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. It is entertaining and full of vivid imagery. I’m already waiting for her newest book to come out.

What has your biggest takeaway been from your experiences?

Dr. Kolker: Everything is interrelated. The worlds of business, law, and medicine can be conglomerated. You can take these same instincts that we use in examining the patient and use them in a courtroom or use them in the business world. And certainly, you can use them in the art world. We use them to create a painting, a sculpture, or to curate an art event or exhibition.

Using that as a standard, the education I got from studying philosophy in college, medicine in medical school, law in law school, and art by my own self-exposure, it all comes together in the same bowl of wax. The decision-making in one becomes effective in the other. The only thing that stands out in medicine and art is that they are heavily laden with emotion and empathy, unlike business and law which are cold and calculated.

Art is comforting because I can express everything I’ve learned freely. In a picture, text paintings, in a video, in a sculpture. It’s exciting when you have an experience to base it on. Most artists are not as fortunate it as I am to have such a world of experiences on their plate when they create something. It isn’t creating something out of nothing. It’s about creating from a whole host of past experiences.