Yale Medicine, Winter 2004

Working on a broad canvas, physician-artist finds perfection amid life’s many flaws 

It is 5:30 a.m., and the sun hasn’t yet risen on this fall day in Providence, R.I. On the third floor of an old house in the historic East Side of town, Cheng-Chieh Chuang, M.D. ’95, holds his watercolor brush in his hand.

This is how Chuang begins each day—in his studio. The meditative focus of painting prepares him for the hectic pace of his solo family practice in Taunton, Mass., a blue-collar town just across the state line. It allows him to work as an artist, a lifelong interest and parallel career to medicine.

Painting also serves as a philosophical foundation for Chuang. When he chooses a subject for his detailed, nearly photographic watercolors—usually something from nature—he does not avoid objects that seemed flawed, like a maple leaf with a scaly patch. “All those scars are beautiful in themselves. Nothing is perfect in this world,” says Chuang. He tries to retain this perspective when meeting with patients. “I try to see them as perfect beings, despite their imperfections.”

For four years after his residency in family practice at Brown University, Chuang’s desire to travel and paint while practicing medicine led him down an unusual path. He spent half his time on the road doing locum tenens work and half his time at home in Providence, painting. He lived in a dozen communities for several months each, from Maine to Alaska and from Minnesota to New Mexico, where meeting patients gave him a more nuanced view than that of a tourist. In the fall of 2002 he settled full time in Providence and has established an Internet site to display his paintings and sell prints (See http://www.fromearthtosky.com/).

Chuang also combines his interests by teaching a course in art and medicine to Brown medical students. They explore how art can improve their powers of observation and enrich both their own lives and those of their patients. Chuang wants his students to view physicians in the way that he came to see them as a child growing up in Taiwan (where his adventures sometimes ended with a trip to the doctor): not just as scientists but as “renaissance men/women.”

Chuang is looking for a house near his practice in Massachusetts, where he hopes to combine his office with an art gallery and a “healing garden.” Having worked much of his career in subsidized clinics in medically underserved areas, he is tempered by the realities of private practice, of having to worry about the bottom line in addition to simply providing quality care. But he’s happy with the work. “Family practice constantly reminds me to be curious about everything in life, including the human condition.”

And he tries to see each day as a gift. “There is so much adversity. … But most of us go through daily life without any big problems. That in itself is a miracle. That’s something we take for granted, like the air.”

Cathy Shufro