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Stanford Report, April 30, 2003

General surgery chief reveals his creative side in campus sculpture exhibit


By day, Ralph Greco, MD, removes and repairs organs and tissues: gallbladders, spleens, thyroids, pancreases. By night, he takes blocks of stone and transforms them into things of beauty: a pair of lovers; a boy; abstract shapes that defy description.

While surgery is Greco’s professional passion — he is a general surgeon and chief of the division of general surgery — sculpture is his creative passion, a refuge from the pressures of life and medicine. "It’s something that gives me a tremendous amount of satisfaction," he said. "It’s a solitary activity, a calm place in this hectic life."

A collection of Greco’s sculptures is on display through May 8 at the Center for Integrated Systems on the Stanford campus. His first exhibit in the Bay Area, it’s far from his first show. Before coming to Stanford in 2000 from Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey, Greco enjoyed success as a sculptor, having exhibited his work at more than half a dozen shows in the Northeast.

When Ralph Greco isn’t operating on patients, he likes to create sculptures. Several pieces of his work are currently on display at the Center for Integrated Systems. Photo: Sara Selis

Greco, the Johnson and Johnson Professor of Surgery, approaches the public display of his work with trepidation. "Showing your art is a nerve-wracking experience because it means exposing your inner self, and people might not like it," he said. "It’s sort of like being a child again. On one hand, you’re really excited, but on the other hand, you’re scared to death, wondering, ‘What will people think?’ "

Greco, who previously dabbled in drawing and painting, became interested in sculpting in 1986 after buying a piece he was drawn to. "I can’t explain it," he said. "I just got the bug that I wanted to be a sculptor. I felt a natural affinity for sculpture and stone."

At the Princeton Art Institute, which was just minutes from Greco’s home, he took classes with Lilly Gettinger, an Eastern European sculptor who had trained under the renowned Ukrainian artist Alexander Archipenko. Greco took classes with Gettinger for five years, until he and his family moved to western New Jersey and he continued sculpting on his own.

As Greco’s friends saw his sculptures, they were impressed and encouraged him to exhibit his work. He had his first show in 1995 at a gallery in Greenbrook, N.J. On the first night — much to his surprise — he sold a piece for $3,500. He has since sold some dozen pieces at prices ranging from $2,000 to $5,000 — a range that provides only a slim margin over the cost of producing the sculptures, Greco said.

Most of Greco’s sculptures are made of stone, including limestone, alabaster and marble, but he has also sculpted with wood, even using the trunk of a maple tree. His sculptures depict a variety of forms, including his son; a Haitian witchdoctor; and an imaginary creature resembling a porcupine. "There’s no deep meaning or theme to my pieces," he said. "I just like to play and create."

But Greco has often been surprised and amused by the interpretations people ascribe to his artwork. Several years ago, he donated what he considered an abstract sculpture to Robert Wood Johnson Hospital. One of his surgical residents told him, "I like it, but why did you make a rabbit for the hospital?" Greco recalled. "I said, ‘What are you talking about? That’s not a rabbit. You’re crazy.’ But I stepped back and looked at it, and by god, from one perspective it did look like a rabbit."

For Greco, creating a sculpture is an emotional journey from excitement to disillusionment to contentment.

"When I first imagine a piece, it approaches a level of perfection, an ideal form," he said. "Then there comes a period of total dejection, when you realize it will never live up to that ideal. But if you continue and don’t give up, you come up with something you can be at peace with. You look at it and say, ‘This isn’t exactly what I imagined, but it’s pretty darned good.’ "

There are some common elements between surgery and sculpture, Greco noted. Both require a steady hand, good hand-eye coordination, well-developed depth perception and intense concentration. But the aspects of sculpture that Greco enjoys most are those that have nothing to do with his work as a physician. "With sculpture, I can create what I want, how I want and when I want to," he said. "It’s the one thing I have that’s totally mine."

Greco takes a round of Stanford Hospital residents on a volunteer trip to Haiti (10/16/02)