I met Dr. Eugene Bortnick at his medical office in Leawood, finding him sharply dressed in suit and tie. I was catching him between morning patient appointments and heading home to his studio to paint. He struck me as an engaged, vibrant man.
Bortnick has been drawing since he was a child. When his mother would be busy and tell him to find something to do, he would spread out the Kansas City Star comic strips, which were much larger then, and trace them onto paper. Prince Valiant was a favorite subject.
"Trace something repeatedly, and eventually you can draw it on your own," Bortnick said.
Thus began his education in art.
Other than participating in a few classes at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where students drew from plaster models, and investing in some art books, Bortnick taught himself through the years. He came to focus on portraits and the human figure.
This love of art continued, and when Bortnick came of age, he announced to his parents that he was going to be an artist. They responded with an emphatic "no." His mother and father grew up during the Great Depression, and weren't about to see their son barely scraping by as a painter, living in a garret somewhere. They insisted on a more stable career.
Bortnick chose science and then medicine, eventually attending the University of Kansas School of Medicine. Once he started being exposed to areas of medicine such as emergency room care, he knew he was better suited to less trauma. If not consciously, his knowledge of the human face and form from his art led him to specialize in head and neck and facial plastic surgery.
While in the Army, he was head of the Department of Otolaryngology at Fort Sill, Okla. But his art was never left behind. Even while he was a medical resident, he continued to paint and was recognized for a picture depicting a veteran in a wheelchair waiting in a veterans hospital.
Bortnick said he was never torn between being a physician and an artist. He has always valued his "day job," private practice he has pursued since 1966. Even recent suggestions to pack up his portfolio and head to New York for greater success had him immediately thinking of the risks and struggles that would be involved, and he decided to stick with reconstructive and plastic surgery.
Bortnick comfortably splits his time between his private practice and painting. Two days a week he takes appointments; three days he performs surgery; five-plus days he paints, either in his Prairie Village home studio from photos or subjects outside his window, or in an informal class where he draws with other artists from live models. If time allows, he teaches art.
He does not set goals to paint a certain number of pictures, enter certain contests, or sell a minimum number of works each year. Painting daily, for hours each day, seems to be his only guide. And this persistence and discipline have produced hundreds of paintings through the years, bringing him both national and international recognition. He has had one-man shows, displayed work at the Forbes Gallery in New York, and is a member of the Birmingham, United Kingdom, Watercolor Society. His vocation and avocation benefit each other, as he has also appeared in publications including the International Journal of Aesthetic Surgery and the Archives of Facial Plastic Surgery.
At age 78, Bortnick appears fit in mind, body, and spirit. He exercises regularly in his gym at home, but it seems his contentment with his medical career and love of his avocation promote his overall health.
Bortnick is also a family man. He and his wife, Catherine, have three sons and eight grandchildren. One of the sons became a plastic surgeon, but none of his progeny have taken up painting.
Bortnick gave me a tour around the lobby and halls of his office, walls exhibiting just a fraction of his art. There are portraits of his wife, studio models, and other local artists; scenes of fellow physicians operating and athletes running or pitching; and a few landscapes and cityscapes of places near and far.
Most of the pictures representing the human form show great flow and movement, and are done in Bortnick's preferred medium of watercolor, which he says is a fast, clean substance to work with.
To view Bortnick's art, visit www.lifepainter.com.