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How Creators Create: A Plastic Surgeon’s Love of Pottery

He credits his early creative drive to spending three years in kindergarten — the advantage of being grouped together with his older brother — and his later breakthroughs in breast reconstruction, he believes were due in part to specializing in a more creative field of medicine: plastic surgery.

Given his background, pottery seems to be a natural art form for this doctor, and my dad, Dr. Bob Allen, to take up, but we all know that artistic flair doesn’t appear out of thin air. So, where does he draw his inspiration from and what can he teach us about the positive side effects of being creative? He shares that with us and more below.

1. Did someone or something inspire you to begin making pottery?

In the early days of my profession, when my job was busy and not balanced, I thought developing an outside hobby would be good for my work and my mind in the long term. Pottery offered a way to use my hands like a surgeon; I could create something that wouldn’t have complications. And with pottery, the fruits of your labor are immediately apparent, molding the clay this way, shaping it that way until you’re satisfied.

Thinking back, too, I’ve always loved looking for Native American pottery on the South Carolina coast, where I spent a lot of time growing up. Finding these old treasures in the sand reminds you that this is an art form that’s been part of humankind for thousands and thousands of years. It holds up to time. I admire that.

2. How does being a reconstructive surgeon influence your approach to pottery?

Plastic surgery is one of the more creative fields in medicine. There’s no right or wrong way to solve a particular problem. It’s innovative, so when I figured out it was relatively easy to innovate and made a breakthrough in breast reconstruction, around age 40, that emboldened me to be more creative with pottery.

Dad's pottery
One of his vases inspired by Picasso.

Introducing something new to the field also made me look to the arts and humanities more as a source of inspiration. I began blending the two, arts and humanities with science, and that has proven to be a worthwhile experiment for me.

3. On the flip side, how has your creativity had an impact on your profession?

If your vocation and avocation overlap, that’s a very positive and desirable thing. Especially when you are able to be creative in your profession, that tends to have a domino effect on your outside hobby, like pottery, and you become more artistic and expressive.

When you enjoy being in a creative environment, I also find that you make more time to study other things of interest, like physics, astrology, history or whatever it may be. Letting your mind explore these subjects, in turn, helps nurture your creative side even more.

4. What are you working on now?

A piece of pottery made from many hands.

My brother created a flat, round clay plate to use as my blank canvas and my mother provided the inspiration for the design — a crayon drawing she did of my birth. She drew the intimate, hospital scene from memory, roughly 40 years later, and it’s been hanging in my office for over two decades now.

Recently, It’s taken on a new meaning.

Dad's pottery
His mother’s original crayon drawing with his first sketch (on the left) and his reinterpretation (on the right).

I decided to use it as a way to introduce an upcoming keynote lecture I am giving, called “The Theory of Everything”. The universe started with a big bang and so too did my life, according to the title of my mother’s crayon drawing, “A Star Is Born”.

It’s not a copy, though. Whereas her drawing probably took her less than 45 minutes to sketch, this piece is more dynamic and bold. She lightly and partially colored her subjects in on an 8×10 sheet of paper. I’m painting a 12-lb, 20-inch slab of clay in very bright colors. Mine looks like an album cover, a lot less modest and much more shocking interpretation.

I’ve had a lot of fun with it, probably spending 15 hours on it so far. It’s rewarding to get to go back to it and continue working on it as often as I like.

5. How do you figure out what you’ll create next?

That’s the fun of it — you don’t know!

I didn’t know I was going to do this painting of my birth after having it in my office for roughly 28 years. The idea popped into my head after thinking about this talk I am working on.

Originally, I thought I might use Picasso or Matisse as inspiration and paint a self-portrait in one of their styles. When you draw ideas from other artists and innovators, which I often do, you understand that a lot of them are interested in the innocence of childhood and how to tap into the free-spiritedness of it all.

Books, like the one I refer to when drawing different body parts, also guide my pottery designs. It helps to know, too, that pottery can be changed before it goes into the kiln. The glaze is water soluble so you can completely remove portions of your painting, change the colors and put in fine details as you go along. In the piece I’m working on now, I’ve changed her hospital gown to seersucker pajamas and painted on red lipstick and long eyelashes. Adding more detail to her ears is next!

6. In what ways has your pottery changed throughout the years?

Centering your piece — throwing moist clay on the wheel while it’s spinning and getting it totally centered so it does not wobble — is the very first thing you do. And in my opinion, the hardest thing.

As soon as it gets off center, it begins to fall apart, so you’ve got to get it just right. Over time, this gets easier, like molding a very thin piece of clay. A beginner potter tends to make thicker pieces, similar to when I started out. Once you get a feel for how to press and pinch the clay, you can then start making larger, more advanced pieces like vases, water pitchers and platters.

Dad's pottery
Two pieces, painted in the Picasso style that he admires.

I’ve learned a lot since taking up pottery. Like any craft, it takes time to perfect and make something you are proud of. After you’re happy with shaping the clay, you let it sit for a week and dry out. Then you carve and fine tune it, fire it, glaze (paint) it and fire it again. The process takes about four to six weeks from start to finish if you keep up with it. For me, it’s time I look forward to spending.

7. What advice would you give to people who are looking to be more creative?

That’s the key — if you’re looking for an outlet to express your creativity, you’re going to find it.

If you’re into poetry, read it, write it, go to poetry readings. Get it down on paper.

Take up a new hobby, like sculpture or photography. You don’t have to limit yourself to one thing, that’s the great part. Music, for instance, is another extraordinary creative outlet — one I’d like to learn a lot more about in my next life.

Throughout history, going back to the prehistoric age when people painted on caves, humankind has proven to be very creative by nature. So to nurture that part of ourselves, our inner being, is a positive thing.

Give shape to your creativity. Let it breathe. Go back to it. Bring it to life.

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