Artist with a Syringe
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Left: Only a Little Thing, 2009.
Eric Finzi C’77, a dermatologic surgeon, has molded and sculpted hundreds of faces over the years: old men, young women, even legendary French actress Sarah Bernhardt. He’s plumped up lips, smoothed out brow lines, sucked up excess fat—and that’s just in his artwork.
This morning, he’s been working on faces in his art studio—a former auto body repair shop in a Kensington, Maryland, warehouse—but in a few hours, it’s off to the other faces awaiting him at his cosmetic-surgery practice in nearby Chevy Chase. He’s been splitting his work hours between art and surgery for over a decade now, the result of a promise he made to himself after finishing his medical residency.
“At some points, different parts of both my careers have become highly demanding and needed more time, which is when it gets difficult,” he says. “There are people I’ve worked with over the years who can’t understand why I’m pursuing art and medicine, but I love them both. It’s that simple.”
Finzi’s art career began inside his New York City elementary school. He was 10 at the time, working on a school project, when he hand-copied an Egyptian mummy from National Geographic. He handed it in to his teacher—who immediately accused him of cheating.
“She said that somehow I’d photocopied it,” Finzi recalls, “so then I drew it for her again in a different size. After that, she stuck me in the back of the classroom with some paints, and that’s how I got started painting.”
Or more accurately, how he fell in love with painting. “Painting’s one of those things you get addicted to,” he says, “even though it may not be the most modern of mediums and has been declared dead many times.”
He continued to feed his artistic side, studying painting part-time at the Pratt Institute as a middle-schooler and later attending classes at the Art Students League and Greenwich House School of Pottery. After showing up to his Penn entrance interview with an assortment of paintings and ceramic pots he’d created—“They probably thought I was either crazy or a good artist,” he says now—Finzi entered the University at age 16.
There, he began tapping into his second love—science—and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology. An MD/PhD program at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and a fellowship at the National Cancer Institute followed, after which he came to two conclusions: He would pursue a career in dermatology “because I always liked working with my hands,” and when he finished his internship and residency, he’d spend half of his work week as a doctor and the other half as an artist.
Around the same time, Finzi stumbled on something equally career-altering—a style of painting that stretched his artistic abilities and dovetailed with his scientific bent. “I’d been making sculptures with epoxy resin, but one day I decided to try painting with the stuff,” he says. “I thought it was a fascinating material because I couldn’t quite control it, but it had all these interesting effects. It took me about three years before I could control and manipulate it even a little.”
The resin is created by chemical reactions, and Finzi uses syringes and needles to paint with it. Each work dries differently based on a host of factors—temperature, humidity, specific gravity—and that unpredictability is what he loves most, even when he’s “copying” well-known works of art.
“The paintings are like plays,” he says. “I plan out Act One, Scene One, but then the epoxy resin comes in and does its own thing. Even with the best-scripted play, the final performance is different every time. I really enjoy that element of surprise—I’m never sure what the thing is going to look like until the next day.”
The resin technique also gives Finzi’s paintings a dreamy, liquid quality. He manipulates his subjects’ faces and expressions with the skill of a practiced surgeon (no surprise there), and his paintings have been exhibited in galleries across the country. In late April, he was preparing for a solo show in New York that ran through June 19 and focused on depictions of couples’ interactions through their facial expressions. In “Only a Little Thing,” which shows a couple snuggled up close in a restaurant booth, the woman is smiling, but her reflection in a nearby mirror reveals a frown.
“I’ve always been interested in facial expressions and the multitude of thoughts that they can express,” Finzi says. That fascination also turns up in his medical work. A few years ago, he ran a small clinical trial on facial expressions’ impact on emotions in which nine of the 10 depressed patients in his sample recovered from their depressive symptoms after getting Botox injections between the eyebrows—in other words, after they were prohibited from frowning. Since then, he’s been working on a nonfiction book titled “Muscles of Emotion.”
“Most people think you feel one thing, and therefore move your face a certain way,” he says. “This whole book is about the opposite effect: moving your face a certain way can actually influence how you think and feel.”
Finzi is well aware that he’s in a unique pool of people who don’t fit into a singular right- or left-brained category—something he says has been “both a blessing and a curse” over the years.
“I found that if I only did one thing, the other half of my brain just wasn’t as satisfied,” he adds. “I think it’s more common than we’re led to believe, but some people can’t understand why I don’t want to do one thing all the time, and I can never quite explain it to them.”
—Molly Petrilla C’06
| ©2011 The Pennsylvania
Last modified 6/24/11