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“I’ve always been an art enthusiast,” said Dr. Chase, an orthopaedic surgeon who pursued his interest in sculpture during his residency in Boston, where he frequented both the Museum of Fine Arts as well as the Isabella Stuart Gardiner Museum.“I set up a studio in the basement of the house I was renting and made mobiles à la Alexander Calder.”

AAOS Now

Published 1/1/2011
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Maureen Leahy

Art (?) in the OR!

Surgeon finds time for creativity in the operating room

When he’s not treating patients, Mark D. Chase, MD, often visits New York City’s art museums—the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Neue Galerie, and others. On Sunday mornings, he browses the Chelsea flea market.

Mark D. Chase, MD

In group practice in Montclair, N.J., since 1989, Dr. Chase now pursues both his passions in the operating room (OR) where, for the last 18 years, he’s been sculpting miniature faces, using the excess polymethylmethacrylate (PMMA) from some joint replacement surgeries requiring bone cement.

When used for implant fixation during hip and knee replacement surgeries, PMMA can take 12 to 15 minutes to harden. “During the last 2 minutes, the cement is just getting firm enough to hold a form,” he said. That’s when he molds the cement into 1½- to 3-inch faces. He uses various surgical instruments to make impressions suggesting facial features on the forms.

The sculptures do not represent actual patients, and most are fashioned while Dr. Chase is assisting his partner John F. Mendes, MD. Many of the faces are inspired by images and art works from the museums Dr. Chase frequents. “I often use these works as stimuli, but other times I employ a more free-form construction,” he said.

Dr. Chase doesn’t consider himself an artist, nor does he take his sculptures too seriously. He does, however, admit that the medium and the “studio” in which his sculptures originate are certainly novel in the history of art.

“Creating real art is hard work; it involves conception, planning, and execution. Who has time for that?” said Dr. Chase. “My sculptures can best be described as outsider art—art that results from one’s own little creative bursts. These cement faces are fun; they take 2 minutes to make, and they always get a chuckle from my partner and operating room staff. Maybe when I’m retired I’ll have time to devote to making ‘real’ art, but for now it’s just a bit of arts and crafts—a short ‘break time’ in the OR.”

Forty Feet of Faces
In 2010, Dr. Chase created a permanent display for the PMMA faces that up until that time he had been collecting in many of his McCoy pottery vases. Using a 3.2 mm drill, 4.5 mm tap, and dowel screws, along with the help of a carpenter to fabricate 20 frames, he mounted the faces. The result was a 40-foot linear installation comprised of 140 facial reliefs.

As described on his Web site, www.bonecementart.com, Dr. Chase’s Forty Feet of Faces “offers a fascinating three-dimensional commentary on the ephemeral nature of the human body—its fragility, its resilience, and the innate desire, shared by medicine and art, to wrest a view of humanity’s many faces from the inexorable grasp of our shared mortality.”

“Each face is unique, and the proper way to view them is horizontally at eye level. That’s how I came up with the name—the installation needs to run linear, that’s the only way to see each face’s individuality,” Dr. Chase explained.

The installation currently resides in an old, renovated barn behind his house. Dr. Chase hopes to share it with his patients and the public someday, as well as his colleagues, perhaps at an orthopaedic meeting.

“Orthopaedic surgery is primarily a technical exercise, but it is also crafty and often involves some creativity,” he said. “I think AAOS members would enjoy seeing what has been done with that last glob of amorphous cement. Some of the pieces are very interesting, but mostly it’s been fun. And when the face finally turns to ‘stone,’ it’s about time to irrigate and close.”

Forty Feet of Faces is a linear installation of the miniature faces Dr. Chase has molded from excess PMMA. (PDF)

Maureen Leahy is assistant managing editor of AAOS Now. She can be reached at leahy@aaos.org