Whitehot Magazine

Keith Kattner: There And Back Again

KEITH KATTNER, Untitled Station, 24 x 30, Oil on Canvas, 2017 

By KURT MCVEY, Nov, 2017

As far as professions go, “neurosurgeon” and “painter” would appear to be at opposite ends of the disciplinary spectrum. For Dr. Keith Kattner, however, who at age 49 and at the top of his game no less, officially hung up his chisels, curettes and forceps for brushes, oils and the intoxicating aroma of turpentine, there are as many practical and emotional similarities between these two seemingly disparate endeavors as there are divergent approaches and ideologies. On Wednesday, November 8th, Dr. Kattner will unveil an ethereal selection of surprisingly emotive and intellectually challenging landscape paintings at Salomon Arts Gallery in Manhattan, in a show curators are calling, somewhat ironically one would imagine, Urban Bucolic.

At first glance, Dr. Kattner’s paintings would evoke the same great American Regionalist painters of the first half of the twentieth century, artists he once worshipped as a child and now collects, such as John Steuart Curry, Grant Wood, and Thomas Hart Benton. Some will rightfully recall the great American masters Robert Henri, George Inness, and even faint hints of Andrew Wyeth. Others may feel the looming specter of the American ornithologist, naturalist and painter John James Audubon, whose works kicked off Dr. Kattner’s now impressive American art collection, which can be seen in The Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee.

KEITH KATTNER, Reflection 4, 20 x 20, Oil on Canvas, 2015

In downloading Dr. Kattner’s tone and style, it’s difficult to escape comparisons to the central figures of the Hudson River School, like Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt, who, much like Dr. Kattner himself, found inspiration in the works of such European masters like Claude Lorrain and J.M.W. Turner. Rounding out the simple list of artistic references would be two nineteenth century American masters, Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper, to whom Dr. Kattner attributes presumed traces of a certain lurking existential dread, which more empathic viewers may discover rather quickly in the doctor-turned-artist’s deeply layered works.

Art and film enthusiasts may be acutely aware that Edward Hopper’s paintings directly influenced much of filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock’s haunting visual aesthetic. Hopper’s 1925 painting, “House by the Railroad,” for instance, was a direct conceptual reference for the Bates Mansion in Hitchcock’s enduring 1960 masterpiece, Psycho. This reference leads us back to the dark recesses of human psychology and more concretely, the infinitely complex human brain. For Dr. Kattner, his paintings are reflective expressions of his own memories-the good, the bad-which he urgently and rather compulsively immortalizes on canvas.

It’s this emotional complexity and synergy with something fiercely physical that makes these otherwise pretty constructions of fields, trees, valleys and happy families something much more intriguing-something altogether contemporary. In this tenuous, endlessly frustrating past-modern age of Trump, where mass murders are absorbed on a weekly basis while legitimate but ultimately futile mental health concerns dissipate into the ether along with our trivial thoughts and prayers, not to mention the rational, collective concerns regarding climate change and growing neo-cold war hysteria, Dr. Kattner’s serene, beautifully composed landscapes appear about as chock-full of anxiety as the playground flashback in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, right before a desperate Linda Hamilton watches a violent nuclear blast turn her blissful, dream-mom avatar, an infant John Connor, greater Los Angeles, and the rest of the playground’s oblivious denizens to dust. 

Though Dr. Kattner completed roughly 8,000 successful surgeries throughout his prestigious thirty-year career, he has no problem relating the fact that those few unfortunate moments that comprise the less than 1% quotient of failure, where he was forced to explain to waiting, optimistic families that a 25-year-old patient, for instance, simply wasn’t going to make it, were taking a toll on his own mental health. Dr. Kattner doesn’t really have nightmares much anymore, sans the occasional relived crisis moment in the O.R., but he did have reoccurring, paralyzing night terrors as an undergrad and prospective art major at Illinois State University in the early ‘80s.

There were periods during his undergraduate studies where a young Kattner lived out of his loyal Dodge Dart, as Reagan-era school loans were virtually non-existent. This was coupled with the fact that Kattner by no means came from a wealthy family. Though his mother was educated at the University of Illinois and his father, despite being an orphan, received a scholarship and eventually taught for a while at the same university- eventually opening up a reasonably successful accounting firm-a young Keith Kattner paid out of pocket for his own education at a private Catholic high school as well as his undergraduate studies, up until enrolling in med school. He did this by flipping the occasional burger or working for a tyrannical 75-year-old landscaper with a 6th grade dust-bowl education. Kattner still credits this man for his thick skin.

During one grueling Midwest winter, as landscape jobs went dormant and cash became scarce, Kattner applied somewhat randomly to a local pathology laboratory. On Christmas night in 1981, he received a call from Mrs. Stroink, “a tough German lady,” who agreed to let a young (“Keise”) Kattner work alongside her husband in the lab as long as he also tended to her rose garden in the spring. It was here that Kattner became accustomed to lab-life and learned enough skills to operate as a pseudo physician’s assistant. Several months in, Dr. Stroink asked why a young Keith, who acquitted himself nicely in the lab, wasn’t pre-med, to which Kattner replied, “I’m not smart enough.” Stroink then expressed, rather intensely, that if Kattner ever said those words again he would be fired on the spot. “It’s not about how smart you are,” Dr. Kattner recalls Stroink saying. “It’s about how bad you want it and how hard you’re willing to work.” 

KEITH KATTNER, UNTITLED, 24 x 30, OIl on Canvas, 2017

Kattner credits a “How to Get Straight A’s” article in Reader’s Digest for learning how to properly take notes and retain knowledge. He quickly went from a C-student to a solid 3.8 GPA. Even with this academic course correction, Kattner’s father still thought the notion of med school was a bit of a stretch for his son. Dr. Kattner calls this his “game on” moment. Eventually, after working 40-hour weeks in the lab while taking full-time credits, Kattner accepted the last seat at Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Early on, Kattner thought maybe he would be a family physician, a general practitioner, or maybe even a medical missionary. Either way, he just wanted to keep his head above water. In 1985, at a Super Bowl party that saw the Chicago Bears win the NFL Championship and introduce the “Super Bowl Shuffle” to the world, Kattner caught several of his younger female classmates (who had slipped through the back door) red-handed; raiding their fridge like wily raccoons while he and his friends were distracted with the game. He instantly became transfixed with the girl who appeared to be their fearless leader, Nita, an undergrad nutrition student. He had to chase her for a while, but soon, they were inseparable. Nita is now his wife and long-term partner of 29 years.

As a fourth-year student, Kattner found himself working at a remote clinic in Missouri, roughly 50 miles from KCOM with no superior doctor in residence. Within his first week, he dealt with a frightening cardiac arrest scenario, foreign ailments well beyond his pay grade and several impromptu life or death emergencies. He often found himself on the phone with actual seasoned doctors, walking him through crisis situations at which he had no business being at the wheel. He credits this time at the clinic for teaching him how to improvise under duress, deal with bureaucracy, difficult patients, as well as their equally distraught families.

Kattner graduated in 1989 and soon began a “brutal” internship in Carson City, Michigan. This involved 36-hour shifts every 3rd night and regularly featured massive car accidents, pediatrics, and the occasional emergency surgery. “You really run,” says Dr. Kattner. “You could find yourself sleeping in the ICU bed next to people on ventilators. You have to be friends with those nurses, even if they showed you little respect.” During this stretch, Dr. Kattner delivered roughly 135 babies as the OBGYN lived a half-hour from the hospital. “I had to revive a few infants,” he recalls. “You have to grab them by the ankle. They’re slippery. You learn how to smack them without dropping them. Sometimes you even have to suck the meconium (in utero fecal matter) out of their mouths manually. That was the old way of doing things.”

On Nov 4th, 1989, Kattner delivered another baby just moments before receiving a phone call from his brother informing him that his father had died. This glaring life-cycle metaphor wasn’t lost on the young doctor. Soon after dealing with this loss, Dr. Kattner began applying for his neurosurgery residency, which, due to the limited options at hand, involved the controversial choice to pursue the more holistic path of a DO (doctor of osteopathic medicine), which is decidedly different from becoming an MD (DOs focus on manipulative therapy and the integration of body systems), a notion MDs, especially in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, would not let you forget.

While Dr. Kattner was applying, there were just 30 DO neurosurgeons in the world. Over the last three decades, however, this number has exploded. At the time though, Kattner was facing an uphill battle. He applied to five highly competitive MD neurosurgery residencies (all he could afford) and was denied each time. At each school, it should be noted, there were only 90 spots on average for over 500 applicants. Eventually, he received an out of the blue phone call from the Chief Resident at Grandview Medical Center in Dayton, Ohio, who remembered Kattner from an earlier internship. A spot had vacated when a resident, overwhelmed with the program’s notoriously difficult demands, attempted to commit suicide on Fentanyl (the synthetic opioid that claimed Prince). The residency’s militant Chairman ruthlessly mocked and fired the man while he was recovering on an ICU ventilator. Kattner squeezed in once more. He was still living in relative poverty throughout this whole process. He would be on call 12 nights in a row and was looking at six months of general surgery and endless neurosurgery consultations. Somehow he made it through, though not entirely unscathed.

KEITH KATTNER, Silhouettes of the Platt River Valley, 30x40, Oil on Canvas, 2017 

Next up was a general neurovascular and skull-base surgery fellowship at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Kattner would be entering into the program, somewhat serendipitously, at the same time as internationally renowned, rock star, Japanese DO neurosurgeon, Dr. T. Fukushima. “He was the most unique individual I ever met in my life,” says Dr. Kattner. “People thought he was a narcissist, but he just wanted to be the best. He always judged me on my capabilities and nothing else. He would call me ‘Keich.’ He taught me everything: how to give speeches, write proposals, perform certain surgeries, you name it.”

After completing this fellowship with Fukushima, Kattner could have practiced anywhere in the world, but instead, he maintained a quiet promise to the Stroink family, who had given him that first “real” job in the pathology lab and put a roof over his head when he was living out of his Dodge Dart. Dr. Kattner would soon return to Bloomington, Illinois to join Dr. Ann Stroink in her practice. Together, over the course of 15 years, they built a massive neurosurgery program in the private sector that to this day is seen as one of the best in the country.

But eventually, and somewhat inevitably, art came calling. In 2006, Dr. Kattner started painting again. “ I would have done either anyway,” says Dr. Kattner, somewhat defiantly. “Both were a calling. I don’t care what anyone has to say, I’m doing it cause I want to do it and the way I want to do it. I’m not doing art as a career. If that were the case I’d go work behind a desk somewhere.”

Though Dr. Kattner had been buying and collecting work for some time now, he wanted to paint just as good, if not better than the work that was strewn across the floors of his modest home (He didn’t feel right hanging them just yet). “I didn’t know how to paint and I didn’t know what to paint,” he admits, citing color as his early downfall. “When I was a neurosurgeon, I always looked at things structurally or anatomically. It’s like an experiment finding the inside of my brain. I knew this would require a lot of time effort and patience. I didn’t want an arts education. I’ve educated residents and I know the pitfalls.”

He began to think of the Dutch artists from over four centuries ago, who would embark on long, rigorous, 15-year international apprenticeships, a long-forgotten artistic right of passage that now looks considerably more like the road to something like neurosurgery. Three years before officially retiring, in 2007, at 46-years old, Dr. Kattner would work grueling 14-hour days, and then paint at night, often to the point of exhaustion. Something wasn’t clicking. He needed to make a move, literally. That’s when he and Nita packed up and moved to New York City, SoHo to be precise. His education: an obsessive, self-imposed residency at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, all day, three days a week, no excuses.

His greatest revelation: Rembrandt’s “The Jewish Bride,” 1667, which Dr. Kattner would sit in front of for hours in Amsterdam, which he calls “a haunting experience.” Then he learned the schematics, the vast, nuanced architecture of The Met, down to the imperfections in the frames and the molding, the habits of the security guards. He was as methodical as he was during his neurosurgery fellowship with Fukushima.

Dr. Kattner would ask himself, daily: “What made these artists great artists? Why are they here and other artists aren’t. What is the conversation between Vermeer and Rembrandt or Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns? Like neurosurgery, I needed to understand it, learn the history, and how it evolved over the last 100 years. Art has to be the same way. What made Raphael Raphael?”

In 2014, after amassing a wealth of self-taught art history knowledge and developing an almost biblical relationship with The Met, Kattner up and left New York and returned to Bloomington. “I wanted isolation to paint,” he says. “I didn’t want to view painting as a job, so there was no studio.” Much like surfing, another one of Kattner’s pastimes, or even neurosurgery, he liked to operate, or work, or make magic-if you will-in the morning and preferably in natural light. He stayed in Bloomington for one year.

Next, Dr. Kattner and Nita moved to Rhinebeck in the Hudson River Valley for one year as an obvious maneuver to tap directly into a cherished, familiar, and endlessly romantic landscape worthy of Thomas Cole. Then back to Illinois for a year to paint. Then back to Rhinebeck. Then back to Illinois for two years, until two months ago, when they moved back to Rhinebeck, where they currently reside. For years, Dr. Kattner experimented with portraits, but gave it up when he a subject rejected an intimate painting and asked for a new one based on a glamour shot. “I would rather be a plastic surgeon,” he says.

He slowly found his way back to landscapes, perhaps due to the complimentary nudging of the “Dean of the Heartland School of Landscape Painters,” Harold Gregor, whose wife asked to buy a particular painting, “Floating Down the Esopus Creek,” 2015, a dreamscape that pictured carefree people floating down the Hudson River in inner-tubes. This casual appreciation by a respected painter may have subconsciously pushed Dr. Kattner to hone in on his current style and aesthetic, which now incorporates elements of Goya, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, nineteenth century Dutch master Frederik Marinus Kruseman, as well as classical and Renaissance masters, including but not limited to Leonardo da Vinci, especially considering Dr. Kattner tends to incorporate complex sacred geometry into his paintings with the precision of, well, a neurosurgeon.

“These paintings come from a deep subconscious-triggered memories,” says Dr. Kattner. “I wanted to make people understand me. Now I want them to experience something out of my mind. Not a photograph or naturalism, but something like a Hopper painting-structured and organized, but really, very complicated. I’m tapping into my psyche and the psyche of these great painters. Ultimately, it’s about being honest with oneself. If I’m going to paint for others, it would take away the reason why I’m doing this. I have this thing I have to work through.”  WM


Kurt McVey


Kurt McVey is a writer based in New York City.


photo by Monet Lucki


Follow Whitehot on Instagram 

view all articles from this author