During his third year of medical school at Emory University, Scott Shulman thought he wanted to become a surgeon. He had always liked to work with his hands, but his rotation in surgery proved it wasn’t a good fit for him, so he chose internal medicine instead.
“I’m glad I chose what I did,” said Shulman, a physician for Laureate Medical Group.
While he left surgery behind to explore the intricacies of internal medicine, he never stopped working with his hands. On any given weekend, Shulman can be found at his home in Sandy Springs, turning odd materials and repurposed items into works of art. Almost five years ago, he began displaying his work on the walls of the rapidly growing practice, which now has eight locations in metro Atlanta.
Despite the exposure, Shulman is quick to state he’s no artist. “I consider myself someone who puts things together, not really an artist,” he said. “I just think it is neat that I can make something I like and someone else likes it too.”
Conventional wisdom has long held that people are either left-brained (rational) or right-brained (creative), but recent research indicates that theory is a myth. One frequently cited 2013 study from neuroscientists at the University of Utah found that while some functions are associated with a particular side of the brain, individual personality traits are not the result of one side of the brain dominating the other.
In other words, the structure of a doctor’s brain looks a lot like the brain of an artist, and despite his protestations, Shulman offers proof, having created almost 40 works of art that are currently displayed on the walls of four Laureate locations.
A creative outlet
Shulman had about as much chance of pursuing a career in medicine as he did going into a creative industry. No one in his family was a doctor. He also wasn’t particularly well-versed in art. “I didn’t grow up in a family that had art on the walls,” said Shulman, who was raised in rural Pennsylvania. His father, who held a degree in psychology but did not practice, did have a lot of tools. Shulman’s first artistic creation was a replica of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water” made out of balsa wood that he built in eighth grade.
When Shulman arrived on the campus of Emory University, he knew only that he liked science. He took a class in experimental psychology, and by the end of his sophomore year, he had decided to become a doctor. Armed with an undergraduate degree in psychology, Shulman went off to medical school, where his third-year epiphany would lead him to a career in internal medicine. In 1991, he was the sixth physician to join what would later become Laureate Medical Group.
The Midtown office of Laureate is located on a busy stretch of West Peachtree Street. On a recent weekday afternoon, sunlight streamed through the 11th-floor windows of the Northside/Medical Midtown building and bounced off the walls of the waiting room where a metallic purple fish stared open-mouthed at the ceiling. Made of plywood, metallic paint, hinges, a drawer pull and other materials, the fish is one of six aquatic creations that Shulman designed for the space.
Working from pictures of fish that he found online, Shulman also created a mom and baby fish in sparkling blue with bright orange gills made out of wrenches; a slender fish with laminate sample chips as scales and an industrial mop as a tail; and a large gray fish with cut vinyl flooring covering its body and sequins on the fins.
“I don’t know where I get my ideas,” said Shulman. “I see a shape, a texture or a material that gets me interested in making something out of it.” He then sketches out the idea before roaming the aisles of Home Depot in search of just the right materials to help him execute whatever is brewing in his head.
Hobby provides balance
Early in his medical career, as a married father of two young boys, Shulman had focused primarily on building things around the house, such as the rocket he made for his sons from heavy cardboard and plywood with plastic flowerpots and funnels as engines. His wife, Rhonda Taubin, recognizing the value of her husband’s creative outlet, even convinced him to make a 30-foot-long Noah’s Ark for a production at their temple.
The reception to Shulman’s work has been encouraging.
“He’s gotten a lot of really nice feedback and so that fuels it,” his wife said.
Requests have flowed in from friends, relatives and organizations who saw Shulman’s work as unique objets d’art. When Laureate partnered with Northside Hospital in 2012, the practice began to grow, eventually adding four more offices. The Sandy Springs location opened in an older space that they gutted and renovated. Shulman looked at the barren walls and began creating. He currently has 38 works of art on display in four Laureate locations.
Venus Biskis, CEO of Laureate, loved one piece so much -- a colorful abstract made from melted crayons on display at the East Cobb location -- that she asked Shulman to make one just like it for her office in the Midtown location. “I love it. I cherish it. I will take it with me when I retire,” Biskis said. Patients also respond well to Shulman’s work, she said. “They stop and look and try to figure out how he made it. It makes the practice memorable when they come in here,” said Biskis who described Shulman (and all Laureate physicians) as a caring, compassionate and meticulous doctor. “It’s a big deal for us and he does this just out of the goodness of his heart.”
Shulman, who only recently created an Instagram account for his work (imagination_unleashed_art), has accommodated all requests for his work with one caveat: He refuses to accept payment. “I have no desire to sell anything because what is a hobby would then become a job,” Shulman said.
John Long, career coach and founder of Two Roads Resources, hears similar sentiments from many of his clients. “Some people feel that if you put a label and boundaries on their hobby and put it in a box, it becomes very work-like and you lose the appeal and peacefulness that comes with it. You have to respect that,” he said.
For doctors, whose very identities are merged with their careers through the use of an honorific, it is even more important to cultivate outside interests, he said. “The ability to step away from the daily pressure of their regular job or role and do something that brings them enjoyment provides a level of balance to the stress in their lives,” Long said.
Putting his heart into it
In the unfinished part of his basement that he uses as a workshop, Shulman cranks up James Taylor, Carole King or Imagine Dragons and gets to work. Sometimes he gets halfway through one of his detailed projects — which can take 50 to 75 hours to complete — only to ask himself why he is doing it.
For one project, he planned to cover a giant 5-foot heart with small wooden hearts painted in various shades of red. After painting 1,500 tiny hearts, he began mounting them to the board. He was halfway into the project before realizing he had underestimated the task and would need 1,500 more hearts to finish.
For a rainbow made of soda cans, he purchased cases and cases of Orange Crush, Twist, Sprite Zero, Coca-Cola and other brands each of which corresponded to a color of the rainbow. He discarded most of the liquid before cutting the cans into colored squares and mounting them on the board to create a spray of rainbow colors.
Though Shulman usually has a fully formed idea in his head before launching a project, everything doesn’t always turn out exactly as planned. “When someone asks you, ‘What is that?,’ you know it didn’t translate,” Shulman said. Those projects generally get repurposed into something else or dumped in a Bagster that he unfolds in the driveway and calls for Waste Management to collect.
One of his most inspired pieces directly evolved from his profession. Shulman calls it “Pharma Man” — a 6-foot-tall mannequin covered in expired pills each carefully placed with tweezers on the exact organ or body part on which they have an impact. Shulman wants to display it in one of the medical offices, but will first need to encase it in plastic for safety reasons. The dangers of an exposed “Pharma Man” became clear when the Shulmans had a party at their home. After the adults left for the evening, Shulman discovered among the 3,000 pills adorning the mannequin, someone had pinched a Viagra pill.
Whenever Taubin, Shulman’s wife, would walk past the dining room at night, the giant, pill-covered creation would startle her, she said, but she’s grown accustomed to her husband’s projects taking over their home and she readily supports his efforts. She has saved tea leaves for months so he could use them to make dye, she doesn’t throw away anything without asking if he wants it and she also serves as his in-house art critic.
“I do let him know when I don’t think something is quite as good,” Taubin said.
Still, his wife doesn’t have any special insight into his artistic process. “He will look at things and I have no idea how he comes up with them. Sometimes it is worrisome because it is hard to figure out how his mind works.”
Right now, Shulman’s mind is working on deck screws — nearly 2,000 deck screws that he is mounting onto a board to spell “L O V E.” It is a Saturday and Shulman, wearing a paint-stained Laureate sweatshirt with his dog Juno nearby, is driving the screws into holes he hand-punched with an awl and drilled through the board. It is his happy time, as his wife calls it, he is relaxed and his brain — both sides of it — is firing on all cylinders.
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