La Jolla Today Magazine: Making Waves

Dr. Steven Cohen- La Jolla plastic surgeon has hidden talents.


HE IS THE AUTHOR of more than 150 medical articles, an elected member of the prestigious Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., and the proud father of three.

For at least the next two months, the abstract paintings of Dr. Steven Cohen will be on display at the Roche Bobois boutique in La Jolla. The 17 tableaux included in the retrospective collection of his work from 1986 to 2001 are adorned with modem silver frames, complementing the high-quality individualism of the store.

Though his artistic talents are evident, Cohen’s claim to fame is his cosmetic surgery practice. Often hailed as one of the best doctors in the United States, Cohen is world-renowned for his innovative efforts as a doctor, an author and a businessman.

And, of course, an artist.

How does he find the time?

Modestly, Cohen chalks it up to serendipity. Throughout his life, it seems his luck in finding his own talents has been somewhat unlimited.

“You know, sometimes people say to me, “You’re a doctor, you’re writing, you’re painting – how do you do it all?’ I think it’s a case of adult attention deficit disorder, or a learning disability,” he said. “I tell them I can do four things well: surgery, business, writing, art. I only do four things.”

When asked why he started painting, Cohen described a “serendipitous” 1984 event. His wife read something he’d written, deemed it “visually oriented,” and went out to buy him paints and canvases the next day. He started drawing “faces and realistic stuff’ and found he really had a knack for it.

“On a simplistic level, I couldn’t afford to decorate my house while I was doing my residency,” he said. “On a serious level, it allowed me a certain amount of meditative time. Painting brings out dimensions of my personality that are more inclined toward beauty and the arts – not necessarily prescribed formulas, but matters of artistic sensitivity and taste.”

Though his talents in science and art come from opposing hemispheres of the brain, they are inherently connected at the same time. As per the technical aspects of drawing human figures, Cohen said his medical training and knowledge of anatomy simplified that task. As far as artistic expression, plastic surgery and reconstructive surgery especially are simply “extensions of art.”

“With reconstructive surgery, there’s more room for creativity,” he said. “You make decisions about materials to use or ways to build a nose, or bring the eyes together. It draws from an artistic sensibility of what looks good. It’s all the same kind of creative process.”

Cohen began to show his paintings in the same way he discovered he could paint: again, serendipitously. Living in Atlanta, he and his wife ordered some art for their house. The woman who delivered it saw Cohen’s paintings on the wall and asked who had created them. This question would eventually lead to Cohen’s first Atlanta exhibition.

Several months ago, that lucky encounter basically repeated itself when Cohen and co. went to Roche Bobois in search of a couch. The decorator came to his house, asked, “Who painted that?” and the rest is history.

The pieces at Roche Bobois vary in size and color, but the outlines and figures are omnipresent. Simple yet abstract, Cohen uses a variety of mixed media, including watercolor, gouache, pastel, bamboo pencil and Sumi ink. Even the little drips on the empty spaces where canvas is exposed – every piece is left with some white space – seem intentional.

Cohen connects the paintings with what he calls a “journey theme.” Unsurprisingly, he didn’t even know he should find a theme until someone told him he should. Going with the flow and getting lucky in the meantime seem to be the definitive ingredients this man’s life.

“The human condition is a main theme,” he said. “There’s the sense of humans journeying toward a destination. Family, children, parents passing on and their children inherited their roles. It has a lot to do with my own mortality and how I’m going to handle that.”

While he deflects praise for having one of the longest, most impressive resumes around, his insatiable need to follow all paths of interest can be explained by his childhood.

“I went through a series of tragedies when I was young and realized I only have one life to live,” he said. ‘This is my time to do it and then it’s gone. That’s my motivation.”

Overwhelming talent and a little serendipity makes it as easy as that.

All pieces of the Cohen exhibition are for sale. Prices vary from $1,000 to $12,000. The Roche Bobois boutique is located at 7611 Girard Ave. For more information call (858) 459-1169.