Dec.8, 2000-
Jan. 11, 2001
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Dr. Richard Whitehill
Stephanie Gross
Dr. Richard Whitehill stands near his "Dancing Couple" in the University Hospital's cafeteria courtyard. The sculpture is now part of the hospital's permanent art collection, pieces of which are exhibited throughout the Health System.

Off U.Va.'s clock, surgeon operates as sculptor

By Rebecca Arrington

Richard Whitehill attended Medical School here before joining the staff of the U.Va. Medical Center as an orthopedic surgeon in 1978. But in all his years of medical training, he never imagined that one of his post-M.D. degrees would be a welding certificate, and that he'd wind up wielding a torch as deftly as a scalpel in the prime of his professional life.

But that's how Dr. Whitehill's dual career has taken form. Today he splits his time between the hospital, as a spine surgeon, and his barn-turned-studio, as a sculptor.

There are definitely similarities between being a surgeon and being a sculptor, Whitehill said: "Both deal with form." Sculptors create form, and surgeons have to fix human ones, he said.

In his new work schedule, which took effect in July, Whitehill performs two or three operations "from 7:30 a.m. until" on Mondays. Tuesdays he has outpatient clinic, where he follows up with old patients and meets new ones. Wednesday mornings are administrative "conference days" at the Medical Center, and Wednesday afternoons through Sundays are for sculpting.

"The reality is I work more than half of my time at the hospital. But that's OK, they've been very supportive of my decision [to go part-time], and I enjoy the collaborative nature of my surgical work. I don't want to give up working with residents, either. It's a lot of fun" and a good balance to the solitary nature of sculpting, he said.

The most challenging part of his dual roles is shifting gears. "It's difficult to clear your mind from the operation you've just done to focusing on creating," said Whitehill, who's been keeping a journal to pinpoint his most productive and creative times.

Steel beams and the flair of a welder's torch are what first sparked Whitehill's interest in welding, and subsequently sculpting. "From my office in the old hospital, I watched construction workers build the new hospital, and decided that I wanted to learn how to weld." So he took a course at the Charlottesville-Albemarle Technical Education Center in 1993. For his final project, he sculpted his first piece, "Mr. Lambada," and has created numerous works out of steel since then.

Rebar "provides the sculpture's armature," said Whitehill, who also uses channel- and I-beams, steel plate and black iron pipe to construct his creations. From the whimsical to the more serious, Whitehill crafts both indoor and outdoor sculptures.

Many of his pieces are animals or sports figures, where his knowledge of human anatomy and biomechanics comes in handy. A sports enthusiast, Whitehill runs every day, often with residents, who meet at his house around 6 a.m. for a four- to 12-mile run. He also skis and was on the baseball, wrestling, track and soccer teams in high school. The Norfolk native enjoys sailing, too, but sold his boat a few years back to devote more time to sculpting.

Two of his pieces are on permanent display on Grounds. "Dancing Couple" is in the courtyard of the hospital cafeteria, and "Orthopedic Tree," the symbol for orthopedic surgery, Whitehill noted, is at the Musculoskeletal Center at Fontaine Research Park, near his office. Many of his other works are on display at various homes and businesses in the Charlottesville area, including Ivy Nursery, Brady-Bushey Ford, Atlantic Coast Athletic Club and Higher Grounds. "My ŒKarate Kicker' is outside of the new martial arts studio near the Carmike Theatres," he said.

Whitehill said his works have become more sophisticated as he's become more adept at his craft. "I'm much faster now" and have developed better designs and techniques, he said. A tree he built recently rotates and a ballerina pirouettes, thanks to an axle bearing he bought at an auto parts store.

Asked if he has a favorite piece, he replied, "Yes. Whatever I'm currently working on." Right now that happens to be "Hip Biomechanics," which is also the term for "the diagram all orthopedic surgeons use when in training to determine the force that goes across the hip joint," he explained. The piece will be part of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgery's inaugural art exhibition, to be displayed in February and March at the Presidio exhibit hall in San Francisco. "All the works in the show are by doctors or patients who've received orthopedic care," said Whitehill, who's excited that his work was chosen for the show, his first formal exhibition.

To see some of Whitehill's work, visit:


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