ART IN THE AFTERNOON is a monthly artist talk / workshop usually held on the 3rd Sunday of each month. This series focuses on introducing local artists to the Iowa City community. Support these local artists by following them on their websites and social media pages.
Omer Sanandrawing and watercolor
Omer Sanan is a retired general surgeon. He dabbled in visual arts during his working years. Mostly sketching his colleagues during meetings or when they were dozing on couches in the surgical lounge. After his retirement and relocation to Iowa City seven years ago, Marcia Wegman encouraged him to start attending Phil Dorothy’s drawing studio. That is where he learned how to see. He had been looking intensely inside of people’s bodies as a surgeon, but drawing and painting are a different way of looking. Phil Dorothy, Beppie Weiss, Bob Richardson and others have given him feedback and encouragement. Jo Myers Walker and a group of her students have helped him along with watercolor painting. His artistic endeavors as an amateur artist have became very important to him, and he has made great progress. He will talk about his journey in art.
Daily Iowan Article
From scalpels to sketches, retired surgeon and artist Omer Sanan shares his story in all its colors
Omer Sanan, a retired surgeon, reflects on 35 years of work as a surgeon, his move from Minnesota, and his new artistic life in Iowa City. In his artwork, which ranges from jagged sketches to detailed watercolor paintings, he finds curious similarities to his old job in his new craft.
October 25, 2022
Surgeon-turned-artist Omer Sanan stands with an overflowing portfolio in his left hand. He wears a Van Gogh sweatshirt and sets tortoiseshell bifocals on his head. On Oct. 23, Omer Sanan shared his work and story at an “Art in the Afternoon” event at the ArtiFactory.
In 2015, Sanan moved to Iowa City with his wife to enjoy retirement closer to his daughter and grandchildren. Before that, he worked as a general surgeon in St. Paul, Minnesota, for 35 years. He carried a small sketchbook in his pocket, often sketching colleagues and his workplace.
He found surgery to be its own kind of art, but admits there wasn’t much room for creativity.
“At some level, it’s like being a mechanic,” Sanan said. “You have to figure out what [the problem] is and then you have to just fix it, and you hope that it works.”
He takes out one of his old sketchbooks from his working years and flips through it. On one page, he drew a patient he’d examined for a double mastectomy. He remembers she sang a song. On another, a visitor saying goodbye. She brought a pot of flowers. On yet another, a child’s drawing of a city, captioned “SKY DESTROYER!!!”
“I had taken my grandson with me that day,” Sanan said.
In Iowa City, he and his wife took art classes at the Senior Center to get to know other members of the community. Then, a friend encouraged him to attend the late Phil Dorothy’s life-drawing group, which met weekly. After that, he began taking watercolor classes from Jo Myers Walker.
“[Art] became part of my life. It was wonderful,” Sanan said.
His art centers mostly on landscapes and people; namely his grandchildren. Iowa City is a welcome subject of his work, too — from the various bridges over the Iowa River to an oak tree he happened to spot on his morning drive, Sanan uses the world around him as inspiration. He noted that he often returns to the intersection of North Scott Boulevard and Rochester Avenue.
“There’s a little place in the northeast corner of that intersection where they grow flowers, and there is a road to a farm,” Sanan said. “I’m still struggling with the colors.”
Sanan takes a “more relaxed” approach to drawing — in surgery, he said there is “a severe fear of drawing a long line.” Still, he finds similarities in his past and present work.
“Watercolor has a life of its own. It’s very similar to surgery,” Sanan said. “You do the work, and the body has to do the healing.”
He said art helped him see the world differently. As a surgeon, he hoped never to see an interesting case. As an artist, he searches for them.
“I think you end up absorbing more life around you,” Sanan said. “That way, the ordinary things that you learn to ignore become extraordinary.”
Sometimes, his sketches include writing. Some have poems, others have prose. He flips to a drawing he wanted to share where buildings lean toward one another. There’s the back of a man’s head as it cranes over a sketchbook, and Sanan said he included himself in this one.
At the top of the page, wobbly handwriting reads, “Sunday, January 11th, 2015. First day of retirement in my house in Iowa City. A tiny bit of paperwork, then live a new life.”