Providence Journal

Zen Chuang's soothing blend of worlds


Journal Staff Writer

CRANSTON -- Balancing.

Much of Zen Chuang's life has involved the delicate task of balancing.

A physician and painter, Chuang, 35, has pursued both disciplines, finding common ground between science and art.

Born in Taiwan, Chuang has also managed to meld the influence of traditional Chinese brushstroke paintings with Western-style watercolor techniques. The result is his own style -- elegant in design and exquisite in its use of colors.

An avid reader, Chuang says he loves classic English and American literature, but that poetry is perhaps closest to his heart.

A few years ago, while Chuang was still in medical school, these skills and passions blossomed into a children's book that he wrote and illustrated.

The book is titled Gee-Chi, which is the name of the little bird who is the protagonist and also the Chinese phrase for the sound birds make (the equivalent of the English-language "tweet-tweet").

The simple, hopeful tale is about a lonely little bird who searches for his own song and for others to sing with. The story is brought to life by Chuang's illustrations of little Gee-Chi against backdrops of soft-colored flowers, great expanses of sky and a vivid change of seasons.

Although the book has not been published, the illustrations and text are on display this month at the Cranston Public Library's main branch on Sockanosset Cross Road.

Sitting in the rear gallery of the library last week, Chuang talked about his love of medicine, art and poetry and how they work together in his life.

After spending his childhood in Taiwan, Chuang moved to Argentina in his teens and then came to the United States to study art and biochemistry as an undergraduate at Brown University.

He had always planned to be a doctor, he said, and he always painted. When he was a youngster, his mother was so convinced of his artistic talent that she enrolled him in English classes so he would be prepared if he won an international contest.

Chuang did not win the free trip to the United States that his mother had dreamed of, but he won other contests and his painting style kept evolving as he moved to South America and then the United States and was influenced by the different cultures and landscapes.

After graduating from Brown, Chuang enrolled at the Yale University School of Medicine. It was during that time that he wrote Gee-Chi.

"I think a children's book is wonderful... in that one can make it very simple but at the same time profound, like poetry," Chuang said. "Children's books can also be for [people] of all ages and can potentially reach a much larger audience."

Chuang did his residency work through Brown University and Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island, in Pawtucket, concentrating on family medicine. He completed his residency in 1998, and spent the ensuing years working with VISTA as a traveling physician caring for people in poverty-stricken areas of the country.

He traveled from the desert of New Mexico to the Alaskan tundra, and always, he said, he painted.

Upon returning to Rhode Island , Chuang moved to Providence's East Side and decided to concentrate on family medicine. Several months ago, he opened a practice in Taunton, Mass. He also teaches a course called "art and medicine" at the Brown Medical School.

For the Gee-Chi book, and also to create prints for sale, Chuang uses a relatively new technique called giclee. He takes his original watercolor works, photographs them, scans them into a computer and then uses a high-quality printer that disperses millions of droplets of pigment onto the paper.

Chuang said that special ink and high-quality paper must be used for the prints, which are numbered and created in limited quantity. The result, he said, is vibrant color that will last practically forever if properly cared for.

Medicine and art are not two different worlds, according to Chuang. Art can enhance someone's health just by the passive appreciation of it, he said, and that is why he has decorated his office with what he calls "soothing" art works to create a peaceful atmosphere.

It is not an original idea, he said, noting that more and more hospitals, particularly in children's wards, use art to make areas less stressful and foreboding.

Participating in art, whether its painting or sculpture, can be even more beneficial, he said, noting that it gives people insight, allows them to relax and also imparts a sense of achievement.

One of Chuang's goals is to eventually incorporate art therapy into his medical practice, he said.

And art, Chuang said, doesn't have to be limited to painting or drawing. It can be almost any creative aspect of life -- from deciding where to place flowers in your garden to baking a perfectly golden pie.

"Each person," he said, "can be an artist in their own way."