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A Q&A with Benjamin Blais, first-year medical student at Geisel School of Medicine

How long have you been doing art?
I've been doing art basically since I got my first coloring book in kindergarten (they were my favorite toys; I brought them everywhere). I really started pursuing it more seriously in high school, when I pushed myself to take both two-dimensional and three-dimensional AP art courses during my senior year. It gave me the chance to explore what really interested me and to learn how to develop themes, as well as put together a portfolio.

How did you get interested in art?
My interest has come from so many different sources. I think it initially came out of my love for creative problem-solving. Every step in the creation process for me—from formulating an idea, to layout, to creation—involves creative problem solving. I have also had some great encouragement from my parents and my artistic aunt, my high school art teacher Reagan Russell, and obviously my college studio art professors. My interest in art was fairly solidified by high-school, but it took off in college as my ability and curiosity evolved.

What effect does your art have on your approach to medicine, and/or vice versa?
I tend to work in realism, which requires attention to detail and a great deal of problem solving. I think all of the time I have spent honing those particular skills will benefit me in my future practice. As a first-year medical student I have noticed that I tend to be very patient and receptive when thinking through cases. I find I am also able to be present in the moment and more mindful when talking with patients, possibly because I am so attentive to detail that I require that meaningful focus.

What are the advantages of working with colored pencil? What do you like about that medium?
In high school I preferred the control of charcoal and graphite pencils, since it provided the opportunity to work slowly and carefully, and to correct mistakes. In college, I took a course on drawing with color media and, with the encouragement of my teacher, branched out with different colored media (such as watercolor, pastels, and colored pencils). Soft colored pencils ended up being my favorite since they provided all of the control and detail that graphite pencils provided yet also allowed me to make my images more imaginative and vivid through color. They are very blend-able, much like paints. I have every colored pencil that the Prismacolor brand makes, and I really enjoy punching up the hues beyond what the viewer would expect.

What inspired your drawing "A New Lease"?
Other than what I have included in my artists statement, I would add that I simply find the human body fascinating and wanted to draw something anatomical that people rarely get to see. I love playing with the plane of the page so that it no longer appears two-dimensional, and so the idea first came to me when I saw the retractor holding back the surgical sheets as if they were the paper. This image is done from pictures taken during an actual surgery, as well as images I found online of the same procedure. I completed "A New Lease" in spring 2011, partly to honor the surgeon Dr. Sisto for his groundbreaking work with valve replacement surgeries, and partly to show my appreciation for him and his patients allowing me to shadow so many of these open-heart surgeries.

How do you work on your art?
I put a great deal of time into my drawings, so usually I chip away at them a few hours at a time. The exception to that rule is when I'm working on a piece with a deadline, or just close to finishing something and want to see the finished product. In these times, I catch myself spending an entire day working quite happily with no breaks.

Did you get comments from classmates or professors about your work?
Occasionally, here at Dartmouth, a student will mention that they saw my portfolio online (it can be found on my Facebook page, and by this summer I will have a website developed as well), and that they enjoyed the work. Usually the comment is specifically about how "real" it looks, and often people wonder what medium I work in to achieve that effect since it looks like painting but is usually, in actuality, colored pencil. My paintings are significantly less realistic since I have yet to learn how to control a brush.

Are there any great artists who have inspired you or anyone whose work you especially enjoy?
I have always been fascinated with the work of M.C. Escher for a few reasons. I noticed while reading his biography, The Magic Mirror of M.C. Escher, that we have a similar way of both thinking and working when we create. Both Escher and I are fascinated with the art of illusion, the creation of imagined places, and the exploration of geometry and mathematics as it can be applied to art. He invites the viewer into impossible situations that challenge one's understanding of the natural world. Additionally, his work was just for the sake of itself; most of his images where simply imagined and created, which is how I would love to spend the rest of my life. Like him, I find that I occasionally have more in common with mathematicians than artists. His work was often done with careful measuring, calculating, and sketching, and the final product reveals little of this process almost like a magician who doesn't reveal his secret.

I must also mention my love of Anthony Waichulis, a contemporary trompe l'oeil artist here in the United States, whose work is simply above and beyond realism. His paintings, on a scale usually about the size of a postcard, are masterly in both their arrangement and technical skill. His work has provided me with the drive to improve my technical skills in trompe l'oeil works.


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Geisel School of Medicine at DartmouthDartmouth-Hitchcock Medical CenterWhite River Junction VAMCNorris Cotton Cancer CenterDartmouth College