The healing artist
Given her deep love of painting, why did New Jerseyan Dr. Susan Frank choose a career in medicine?
It was her mother’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor from Poland, she told NJJN, that led her to become a physician.
“As much as I love and have always loved to paint, I don’t think I could ever have been just an artist,” said Frank, who works at Morristown Memorial Hospital. “Because of my experience growing up with a mother who had experienced such loss, and with so much unexpressed sadness, I learned to be a caretaker of sorts. I felt that I needed to be useful to the community, if not to the world; my job was to care for other people as much as I could. If I had the ability and strength to become a physician, I needed to do that.”
So do that she did. But her two life arenas are not unrelated. Musing on her dual callings, the Park Ridge resident asked, “Am I a doctor or a painter?” Her answer is revealing: “I am a radiologist, which stands to reason, because radiology is a totally visual field of medicine.”
In fact, Frank began as an art major at the University of Pennsylvania; she entered medical school in part because of supportive people she encountered there. “I had a boyfriend at Penn who was premed and encouraged me,” she said. “I also had a really great premed adviser there. When I walked into her office and explained that what really excited me about medicine was the idea of perfect form that everything in the human body was balanced and interconnected she thought that was terrific. She made me feel that I was capable of doing anything I wanted to do.
“I graduated from Penn in 1973, the era of women’s lib,” said Frank, “and it was very exciting to be at the forefront of major societal changes. We truly believed that anything was possible.”
As exciting as medical school was, Frank’s first year there was a shock. “There I was, standing in front of a cadaver something I’d always wanted to do as an artist expected to learn everything about it, inside and out. I realized, ‘Oh boy, this is nothing like painting it’s going to be very difficult.’”
The difficulty notwithstanding, Frank graduated from the Columbia College of Physicians & Surgeons in 1977, returning there later for a residency in radiology and a fellowship in body-imaging. She married a surgeon during her residency and remained on staff at Columbia until her son was born. For the past six years, she has been happily ensconced in the radiology department at Morristown Memorial Hospital.
Although she loved her medical training, Frank said, she felt unhappy when she wasn’t painting. As soon as she felt able, she resumed her studies in art: “When my daughter Rebecca was an infant,” she said, “she would come with me to classes at the Art Center of Northern New Jersey. In fact Rebecca is the reason I began with watercolors the instructor for the watercolor class allowed me to bring her along.” Rebecca is now a college student, with a minor in art history.
Connected to heritage
Frank said that besides steering her toward medicine, her childhood experiences shaped her commitment to Judaism and her desire “to be useful to the community.”
As she explained, “Growing up, I was very aware of and respectful toward my Jewish heritage. I always felt very connected to Judaism.” Active in the temple she and her family joined 15 years ago, she has served in numerous leadership roles, including membership chair and sisterhood vice president. She has also taken the synagogue’s adult ed courses and became an adult bat mitzva. “It’s a very important part of who I am,” she said.
Frank incorporates Jewish themes and subjects into much of her art. “Through my painting I began to work out my feelings toward my heritage. For a friend who was having an adult bar mitzva, I painted his haftara. Over time, I have discovered that the narrative of both the Torah and the haftara is absolutely filled with paintings waiting to be created.”
Frank has been to Israel numerous times and even did a “wonderful rotation in 1977 doing community medicine at Hadassah Hospital.” Her family also celebrated her daughter’s bat mitzva and son’s bar mitzva in Israel. Those and the other visits she made inspired her creativity. “Seven or eight years ago,” Frank said, “I had a show at the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City, sponsored by the Jewish Theological Seminary. These were paintings I did as soon as we returned from one of our trips to Israel; they are now hanging in the lobby of my own temple.”
Wherever she travels, Frank brings her watercolors with her. “My family is very patient with me; they know I have to paint wherever we go. In fact, whenever we go on vacation, we go to places that are visually beautiful. My last art show had watercolors I had done in Italy, Nantucket, and Cape May.”
Frank has now shifted artistic gears and has begun working in oil. “One of the projects I am quite excited about beginning will be a very large oil painting of the matriarchs,” she said. “I see it as very challenging but intriguing, very meaningful work. That is one of the reasons, in fact, why I paint to work out meaning.”
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