Chamomile and Canvas: Doctoring and Painting
Amrita Karve, MD is a fellow in cardiology at The Ohio State University. She completed her residency in Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan. She grew up in Okemos, Michigan, and attended college and medical school at George Washington University. In her spare time, she enjoys spending her afternoons painting while drinking chamomile tea. Some of Dr. Karve’s unique and vibrant paintings can be viewed and purchased on her site, Chamomile and Canvas, where a portion of the proceeds go to the nonprofit Asha for Education.
I admired Dr. Karve’s paintings and was curious how she saw the relationship between being a physician and an artist, and how she was able to keep up her interest in art during her medical training. Here are some of her thoughts on art, inspiration, and work environment:
V: What made you want to be a doctor, and specifically a cardiologist?
Dr. Karve: I had this friend in 8th grade who I was sitting next to in English class. He was a family friend of ours and I had known him since growing up. Suddenly, out of the blue, in the middle of English class he had a seizure and died on the spot, literally in my arms, as the teacher was trying to do CPR and as I was trying to help. That made me more religious, and I was religious anyway to begin with, but it really brought lots of questions to my mind about who we are, what’s our purpose, and what are we doing here. I just couldn’t stand to not have some of the answers to those questions, it really bothered me and really tormented me that summer. I think that plus really loving science made me feel like maybe I could get some of those answers through medicine, because it was ultimately learning about the self, whether the physical self or emotional, mental, or spiritual self. That’s what initiated all of that, and then beyond that, wanting to do cardiology was based on my interest in physics and helping people get more healthy.
V: In high school, around the same time you started getting interested in medicine, were you also already interested in art?
Dr. Karve: Yes, I’ve been interested in art my whole life, fortunately my mom is very artistic, so pretty much in my whole free time growing up I did very artsy things, like sculpting or painting, and taking some art classes. In college, I majored in biology and psychology, but I painted a lot, and I think it became more of a serious hobby. I gave a lot of paintings away to my friends, and had them hanging in my dorm room. Every summer I would do cardiology research at Duke University, and I found a lot of spare time in the afternoons to buy canvas from the local art store and paint something.
V: How do you get inspiration for what you want to paint?
Dr. Karve: For me, whenever I walk into a room, I think, what color does this room lack? What color would complete this room? That usually is the source of inspiration. And there’s inspiration from places I’ve visited and traveled to. I really think in color. I see something, and I think of what color would complement this, and that’s how I start my paintings. They never end up being how I initially imagined them. That’s one nice thing about painting: you are allowed to screw up completely, when you’re not in any other aspect of your life, and oftentimes I find that when I screw something up or I don’t go the initial path I wanted to with a painting, those always turn out to be the most interesting ones.
V: I think it’s so interesting that you say you “think in color.” I wonder whether you went through certain medical learning experiences in a different way—for example, anatomy?
Dr. Karve: For me, that was actually initially a big problem, especially with my research, because when I would think of ideas and algorithms, I would think of them in terms of pictures, and it would be hard for me to translate them into words. I had the idea clear in my head and it wouldn’t come out right. And that’s one thing, with doing a lot of research, that I finally figured out. But even with anatomy or learning about cardiology, I learn much better with a 3d model, reconstructing something myself, or doing something very spatially oriented.
V: I know you put some of your paintings up for sale on a website called “Chamomile and Canvas.” How did you decide you wanted to share them publicly online?
Dr. Karve: The credit for all of that goes to my husband. I wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for him, but when we met he really liked my paintings, and he always thought I should send them to some art gallery. But I told him, “no way, they’re not good enough.” He really persisted, and he was the one that actually made the website. It was the cutest thing, he took pictures of all of my paintings and cropped them and edited them, and put them all up. I’m a pretty private person, I don’t really like showing off my stuff, but he was so supportive and encouraging. Also, part of the profits go to Asha for Education, a nonprofit group that helps underprivileged children in India get access to better education. If I can contribute in some way, then selling these paintings goes towards something good.
V: How many pieces do you think you’ve painted over the course of college, medical school, and residency? Did you feel like painting provided a sort of mental outlet for you?
Dr. Karve: Probably about 25. It happens in spurts because on lighter rotations, I may have done a little bit more. It also totally varies depending on my inspiration and what else is going on at the time, and even access to an art store. It’s nice to go into a flow state, where you’re almost meditating on something, and you can forget about everything around you and completely focus on this one thing. There are no mistakes in art, so it’s nice to completely let loose and just see where you go. It’s definitely relaxing. What I like to do is turn on some music, and drink some tea, and on a lazy afternoon when I’m not on call or doing something crazy or trying to catch up, I like just painting for hours at a time and getting lost in it. It’s very relaxing. There has to be something in your life where the results don’t matter.
V: Do people at work share things that they do that’s not work-related but is creative?
Dr. Karve: I don’t think it comes up a lot at all. There are just so many things we don’t know about each other. I think in medicine you rarely get a chance to actually be recognized for who you are, and I think it’s so much better when you are. I remember one day, one of my attendings had asked to see some of my paintings, since somehow somebody shared the fact that I paint. He always comments on everything everybody is doing outside of work, and it’s so nice to be around him because it’s a reminder that we’re all human.