The Neurosurgeon’s Paintbrush: Katherine Ko
Kathryn Ko, Death by Water, 2016, oil on canvas
Neurosurgical case illustrations, whether drawn or painted, have played an important role over time in sharing knowledge of neurologic anatomy and surgical techniques. Artists have captured the evolution of neurosurgery in permanent display. Neurosurgical greats such as Walter Dandy and Harvey Cushing have drawings and paintings attributed to their career which we still look back on today, whether for educational or entertainment purposes. Artists have a unique ability to capture a detail in medicine or anatomy in such a way that reveals something unknown, or illuminates an emotion which was otherwise obscure. It is this vision, detail, and mastery of touch that makes art and neurosurgery complimentary. Kathryn Ko, MD, MFA, is a practicing neurosurgeon at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn. She is also a serious multimedia artist who takes her inspiration from her neurosurgical career.
For her, art is not a hobby, but a co-existent skill which hones her neurosurgical passion and provides the necessary spark for her paintbrush.
Dr. Ko grew up in Oahu, Hawaii, and moved to New York City in 1983 to pursue neurosurgery. She received her medical degree and completed residency at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City. She ended up staying on after residency, largely due to her gravitation toward the arts. Painting was something Dr. Ko initially began as a hobby during her neurosurgical career. She had early experiences in writing and in holography, which is a unique blend of physics and art, and one which also lends itself to other forms of art. She didn’t think about art as a career, but nonetheless took up weekly evening art classes, eventually deciding to pursue a MFA in Representational Painting and Drawing from the Academy of Art University. Early inspirations included Caravaggio for perception and understanding of light, and Andy Warhol for numerous media types. Although Dr. Ko’s early experience in writing and holography primed her artistic pathway, she notes that she became an artist when she picked up the scalpel, and the New York arts scene kindled the flame. She states, “I see myself making art with the analysis of a surgeon and doing surgery with the vision of an artist.” A neurosurgical career prepares the mind for three-dimensional reconstructions of two-dimensional objects such as MRIs, and an artistic hand deconstructs real-world objects onto paper with a poetic interpretation. The twocareers are complimentary and improve each other.
Kathryn Ko, Danger Trumpet Man, 2013, acrylic on canvas
It is intriguing to note that Dr. Ko is an ambidextrous brain surgeon and artist. She writes, operates, draws, and paints with two hands and both right-left brains. She does representational work (realism) with her right hand and abstract work with her left hand. She works in oil, acrylics, graphite, charcoal, pastels, collage, assemblages, video, ink, watercolor, holography, and glass. Her main interest now is medical subjects, including portraits of surgical cases, and medical cartoons. She founded The HaBluds, a cartoon collective where she collaborates with other artists to write and illustrate comics. She also hosts an engaging YouTube series titled Art on Call where she interviews physicians in the arts. Dr. Ko has done artwork for several journals, textbooks, and articles including several covers of World Neurosurgery, and her paintings will appear on the cover of Youmans and Winn Neurosurgery book. Social media is the largest venue for Dr. Ko. She can be found on Instagram at doc_ambidexter with over 10,000 followers.
Kathryn Ko, Mighty Torch, 2016, oil on canvas
A recurring question among many neurosurgeons is whether it’s possible to balance the time commitment of a neurosurgicalcareer and another hobby or passion—a question that is also asked of Dr. Ko quite often from artists. Her advice: if something is still missing in your life, you should pursue it, especially if it is going to help people. After all, you have one shot on earth—kill it. Dr. Ko advocates for individuals to fulfill their passions in life. She proves that it is possible to be a true hybrid and successfully develop another passion in life at more than just a hobby level.