The Education of an Artist: Keith Kattner

Ruby Thomas

Keith Kattner, DO, retired from a successful neurosurgery practice at the age of 49 to pursue his first love— art. A prolific researcher, residency program director, and co-founder of the Central Illinois Neuroscience Foundation, Dr. Kattner packed up in December 2010 and moved to Manhattan for two years to immerse himself in the New York art scene and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Seven years and 600 paintings later, Dr. Kattner leads a bohemian existence, roaming like Van Gogh, from his home base in the Midwest to the Hudson River Valley to the Canadian wilds, in constant pursuit of adventure and of the masters that artists dream of surpassing.

Keith Kattner

Congress Quarterly: Was art always something you wanted to pursue?

Dr. Keith Kattner: I was an artist before I went into medicine. I was actually going to plan a career in art. I worked for a pathologist about 30 hours per week as an undergraduate, and he’s the one who convinced me to become a surgeon. I told him, “I’m not smart enough to get into medical school,” and he chewed me out. I realized if you study hard, you actually could get good grades. No one particularly told me that in high school or college. I eventually got into medical school, but I still was an artist to begin with.

Residency and neurosurgery didn’t allow too much time for painting, but I collected art. I have a major American art collection sitting in a museum in Memphis, the Dixon Gallery and Gardens. I collected art to replace what I really wanted to do, which was paint.

Figure 1. Reflection Seven, 2016, oil on canvas

CQ: How did you make the decision to retire from neurosurgery?

KK: I told myself, if I’m ever going to do this thing, I have to do it young enough, because you don’t want to look like some old, retired guy walking around New York City! Plus, I knew it was going to take me a while to catch up. Most of the artists out there had been painting for 30 years, and I was already 49 years old. I started painting about three years before I retired. I used to work, put in 16-, 18-hour days, and come home and paint for three to four hours to give myself a running start. But I was used to working 80, 100 hours a week, so it really wasn’t that hard.

CQ: How did you continue your art education after retiring?

KK: I intentionally did not pursue an art degree. I lived in Manhattan for a couple of years to study art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My school was the museum, and I read 20,000 pages on Modernism.

CQ: How did your experience as a neurosurgeon influence your development as an artist?

KK: Neurosurgery is a very conservative field of medicine. What I learned from neurosurgery is, first of all, hard work goes a long way. If you think you’re going to do one painting a year and be a good artist, you’re not. Just like with surgery, you’re not going to be a very good surgeon unless you do many surgeries.

It also taught me that education is everything. You have to understand what the artist’s composition is about, the history and context of the painting, the formulistic elements. With art education, like neurosurgery education, you have to understand this stuff, and you can’t understand this stuff untilyou’ve read 20,000 pages. I’ve met a lot of artists in New York City who don’t understand what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. That’s where the education aspect comes in.

Here’s where neurosurgery played a really important role in my education. If you want to get an article published in a journal, like the red book, Neurosurgery, you have to have something new, but your work also has to be very soundly based in history. You cross reference other articles and build upon that. Artwork is very much the same way. A lot of the great artists build their ideas upon historical bases.

So neurosurgery taught me hard work, be educated, and come up with something new based upon history. If I did not become a neurosurgeon, there is no way a professor could have taught me what I have learned about art.

Figure 2. Reflection Two, 2015, oil on canvas

CQ: When you look back at history, a lot of the great artists were also scientists.

KK: DaVinci was a scientist. Gauguin was a stock broker. Oscar Bluemner was an architect. Rousseau was a customs agent in France. There are a whole bunch of famous artists out there who had other careers and I’m sure learned from their other careers.

You have to understand the history of training too. Artists were trained like physicians back in the day. Let’s take Rembrandt and the Dutch artists from the 17th century. If you were a Dutch artist, you had to work under a master for years, and he would teach you to paint a tree. When he felt you were good enough, he’d send you overseas, and you’d go spend a year in Italy training under another master. Then when you came back to Amsterdam, you had to have two artists other than your master recommend you to the guild, which was a union (if you went around trying to sell art without being a part of the guild, you’d probably get your legs broken). In order to get into the guild, you had to do a painting. Guess what that painting was called? A masterpiece, because now you’re a master. Artists were trained like physicians, like residents at that time. You were an apprentice under an artist, just like a resident is an apprentice under a program director. The artist would go down to Italy for a year, just like you would go do a fellowship.

CQ: Tell us about your recent work, which is showing in New York right now.

KK: My newest work is deconstructive. I did twelve paintings in this particular group, and they’re based upon Cézanne’s Bathers from around 1906. That was the overall theme.

In these particular paintings (Figures 1-3), I borrowed from the Renaissance for the very symmetrical structure, so there are hidden geometries. For example, in the painting with the diver, you’ll see the triangle, the circle. This is a post-modernistic painting. It’s two-dimensional. The painting is really about form, light, space, and color. You have a diver who looks like Jesus on the cross, you have twelve people on the shore, you’ve got Judas in a tube, and you’ve got the devil-dog off to the side. That’s the conceptual idea of that particular painting.

Figure 3. Reflection Six, 2016, oil on canvas

I took the hidden geometry from Renaissance paintings. The light has been taken from 19th century luminism landscape art of the Hudson River School. I used cool light for the sky and warm colors for the bodies, which is what Cézanne did with Bathers, because warm colors come out and cool colors recede on a canvas. For the bodies, most of the figures have been appropriated over the entire span of 500 years of European art, everywhere from Raphael to Eakins. So you take different elements from different parts of art history, you put them together in one painting, and we term that deconstructive.

CQ: What kind of feedback has your work received?

KK: These are a bit conservative compared to what you see in New York, where people are trying to shock you with sex and violence. But I think it was refreshing to see something different for once—the patrons really love this work. I was surprised because it was so different from what they are used to seeing.

CQ: Looking back, how do you feel about your decision to transition to a second career?

KK: I have absolutely no regrets. And I have no regrets about becoming a neurosurgeon, because neurosurgery taught me a great deal about life and what it means to achieve a goal in life. Towards the end of my neurosurgery career, I used to wonder what could have been if I had pursued art from the beginning. Now that I have seen how artists live in New York, I’m glad I didn’t become one to begin with, because they starve, they work two jobs, they have no time to paint, and they live with three roommates. They’re 25 years old and then they’re 55, and they’re still working two jobs and living with three roommates.

So I’m glad I did it the way I did. I financially set myself up to be able to do this so I don’t have any pressures. I preplanned this. I’m not like Gauguin who walked away from a wife and five kids to become an artist. I learned from neurosurgery that it’s all about planning.