Retired Doctor Finds an Artistic Life After Medicine

Written by on May 31, 2013 in Art - No comments

Janet Neuburg’s fused-glass creations are as whimsical and colorful as their creator.

A rose-colored salmon swishes over an aqua platter. Waves splash across a plate in several shades of blue. Palm-size wasabi dishes sport bright circles within squares, a tricky process that looks easy when Neuburg does it.

Students and customers could easily mistake her as a career artist rather than what she is: a retired doctor reveling in new skills and free time.

Since leaving her medical career in 2007, the 65-year-old has plunged into creating art, volunteering and a combination of the two.

The Salem Art Fair & Festival chose her last summer as one of two “emerging artists” given perks and mentoring. She left the prestigious show with better sales than some veteran craftspeople.

When first contacted for this story, she was busy cooking dinner for 30 for her church’s Foster Parent Night Out program, which she founded. She’s also an avid river rafter.

“You can guess that I don’t fit the mold of being a doctor very well,” she said cheerfully.

Photography awakens skills

Long before Janet thought about medicine, her grandfathers, both photographers, kindled her interest in art.

“I grew up in a time where all kids picked strawberries,” she said. “I spent my strawberry money on a camera, and we all took music lessons.

“The message was, ‘These are avocations. You will not earn a living with this.’… But it’s a great way to add depth to your life.”

After graduating from Reed College, she went on to study biochemistry at the University of Arizona. That’s where she started the art collection that now fills her compact home near Bush’s Pasture Park.

Each item has a story: her own photographs and glass, plus others’ handcrafted furnishings, felted hats, carved wooden sculptures, paintings. The little rug she bought as a starving student still holds a place of honor.

After two years in grad school, studying alongside future doctors, she mustered the courage to apply to medical school.

“If I don’t try, I’ll always look back with regret,” she said, describing her thoughts at the time. “And I got in, probably by the skin of my teeth.”

During her family-practice residency during the 1970s in Rhode Island, she spent a rotation at the Hopi reservation in Arizona. She later returned for an eight-month stint.

Her time immersed in that culture still shows in the woven rugs on her walls and in the vivid color combinations of her fused-glass creations. She proudly points out a photo of her younger self in full Hopi regalia at a cultural festival.

In 1980 she signed on with Kaiser Permanente in Salem, a decision that would shape the rest of her life. She spent a decade in family practice, a demanding specialty.

Then her life changed in an unexpected way: She married and gave birth at 42 to her daughter. That milestone spurred Janet’s switch to occupational medicine.

“I thought, ‘How am I going to do (family practice) with evening and weekend shifts and night calls?’ ” she said. Occupational medicine provided the needed flexibility — plus more time to create art.

Just as hanging out with medical students had shaped Janet’s career choice, meeting Salem-area artists influenced her creative side. She resumed taking photographs and printing them, using rented darkroom space in Portland. She took classes in fused glass from a patient who became Janet’s mentor in that craft.

Janet loved the science of it: the many colors and forms of glass; the way it behaved when cut and when heated; the fact that she could imagine a design and turn it into practical, affordable art.

When she and her husband, a potter, bought a kiln together, that spurred a “three-quantum leap” in her production.

Between them, they covered every wall and every surface in the house with ceramics and glass. They began holding open-house art sales to clear space to create more work. Kaiser commissioned her to create fused-glass works as prizes for longstanding workers.

By the time she retired from medicine in 2007, she had not only restored a sense of balance to her hurried life; she had gained the skills to stay busy and happy in a life beyond medicine.

Art-fair newbie

Over many years living in Salem, Janet had watched the Salem Art Fair & Festival grow from a local event to one attracting national entries. Now she became intrigued by the challenge of gaining a coveted spot there.

Her first fair application, about four years ago, was unsuccessful. But just as she had mastered other fields — moving from family practice to occupational medicine, learning to hike and raft in the Southwest —she set about learning this new skill.

She re-read the entry guidelines (“One year I messed up the deadline; how dumb is that?”) She studied how successful artists marketed their work.

The payoff came last year, when fair organizers chose her as one of two “emerging artists.” The designation brought a tent, reduced fees and special mentoring by another glass artist.

Jim Hamers, a lawyer and woodworker, helped Janet create the needed shelving to display her work at the fair. A board-buying trip to a Mehama mill summed up one of his friend’s key traits, he said:

“Within 10 or 20 minutes, she was thinking in terms of what wood would she like, how we would design it and work with it. She started seeing how we could match this up with that, how we could use the grain here. She is nimble in her thinking.”

Hamers appreciates how Janet combines a physician’s precision with an artist’s openness to experimentation. “I would put her as a gifted artist,” he said. “She doesn’t think inside the box.”

The fair came at a bad time for Janet: She was in the process of divorcing, moving to her own home and creating her own studio. But she stuck with it.

She sold about $2,000 of the $11,000 inventory she had brought — not bad for a hobbyist, but short of what another person would need to earn a living.

“You have compassion for how hard people work and what a scramble it is,” she said.

For her, the payoff came in socializing with old friends and former patients.

She doesn’t plan to become a regular on the art-fair circuit. Instead, she’ll continue to teach her skills and create items for causes that interest her — most recently, the Salem Art Center’s Clay Ball and the foster-parent program, which is funded by sale of her glass stars.

She’ll also keep buying art for gifts and her home.

“Art has always made money burn a hole in my pocket,” she said. “I’ll drive a decrepit old car, and I’d be perfectly happy to shop Goodwill for clothes.”

By Barbara Curtin
bcurtin@statesmanjournal.com, (503) 399-6699 or twitter.com/ BarbaraCurtin

Source: http://www.statesmanjournal.com/article/20130303/NEWS/303030068/Sunday-Profile-Retired-doctor-finds-an-artistic-life-after-medicine

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