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An appreciation of the human form, in the studio as well as the operating room

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2003 - Winter


From his house in Old Lyme, Conn., Wayne O. Southwick, M.D., surveys a green tidal marsh, and beyond, the blue waters of Long Island Sound. The breadth of that vista, punctuated by four former fishermen’s cottages near the water and two lighthouses in the distance, reminds Southwick of the open spaces of his native Nebraska.

Southwick attributes his interest in art to the landscape of his childhood. In the town of Friend (pop. 1,100), boxcars and silos were the only embellishments, and “I thought of them as sculptures,” says Southwick, former chief of orthopaedic surgery at Yale. Now, as he looks out on Smith Neck marsh 32 miles east of New Haven, Southwick is surrounded by real sculptures—his own and those of his mentor, the Italian-born Bruno Lucchesi. Southwick also sees his own work when he walks down Cedar Street, where his bronze of a young man and woman playing basketball, An American Dream, stands near the Jane Ellen Hope Building. And this winter, a show by members of the Yale University community includes his bronze of a woman nursing a 2-year-old, Taking Nourishment. Southwick is among 19 artists exhibiting work at the Yale Physicians Building Art Place. The show, running from October through March, includes works ranging from pastels to shadow boxes, quilts and jewelry.

Southwick says that the qualities that led him to pursue orthopaedics also drew him to sculpture. And sculpture, in turn, has influenced the way he sees the human body as a physician. Interning at Boston City Hospital after earning his medical degree at the University of Nebraska in 1947, Southwick discovered that he enjoyed treating broken bones. “I love the anatomy of the human frame,” he says. In medicine, he often felt he had little to offer patients, especially before the advent of penicillin. He chose orthopaedics, doing a residency at Johns Hopkins, because “I like doing things.”

Instead of going to the movies, he and his wife, Ann, wandered in museums and even went to Paris to see an exhibit of his favorite artist, Aristide Maillol, the 20th-century French sculptor of the female nude. But it wasn’t until the early 1980s that Southwick began lessons in sculpture at Lyme Academy, not far from his home. There he met Lucchesi and began weekly trips to New York City to study with him.

Sculpting sharpened Southwick’s powers of observation as a physician. Looking for scoliosis, “I could see the symmetry or asymmetry of the body more acutely after looking at models and various positions of the spine, but more than that—the other way round—I think knowing what’s underneath the skin helps you think about sculpture.”

Ironically, sculpting also requires suppressing anatomical knowledge. Southwick says sculptures work better if they exaggerate certain features, like the anterior superior iliac spine (the pelvic bones). The head should be smaller than in real life, the neck longer. These alterations “orient your view of things.”

Southwick has retired from surgery (while his son, Steven M. Southwick, M.D., professor of psychiatry, carries on the family name at Yale). The senior Southwick and Lucchesi recently collaborated on a sculpture for the new Connecticut Hospice building in Branford, Conn. Southwick felt honored to work with Lucchesi. “In my mind, he’s the greatest living representational sculptor.” Lucchesi himself has three sculptures on the Yale medical campus, including a bronze of a mother and child in the atrium of Yale-New Haven Hospital.

Lucchesi appreciates that Southwick is using his talents to create realistic sculpture at a time when “everyone is doing a block with a hole in it.” He describes Southwick’s discovery of the art form as a revelation: “A neophyte finds a new religion: he finds sculpture—and he transmits that enthusiasm to other people.”

As for the work itself, what does Lucchesi think? “He trained me,” Southwick says with a laugh. “He thinks I’m better than I was before.”

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