Life in Medicine and Art: A Renaissance Man’s Rebirths

John Brodsky

A retired family physician who has always wanted to arrest all beauty that came before him

(Swarthmore, PA)

The soundboard of a harpsichord painted and built from scratch by Dr. John Brodsky

I met John at a harpsichord concert at Temple University. John is a family physician who retired four years ago when he was 78. He agreed to be my subject and to describe what-in addition to having cared for his patients and raised his five children-he has loved to do. He quoted a line from the Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron, who said “I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me.” As we walked through his home I saw harpsichords, paintings,  photographs, antiques, and what he told me as the remains of a vast library of books on every imaginable topic.

Dr. Brodsky with some of his antiques and books around him

Hazel: So, John. Tell me which came first: medicine, painting, photography, or harpsichord making?

John: Photography came first. My father was an amateur photographer and he had a basement darkroom during the early 1940’s. I remember him mixing chemicals. I remember the aroma of acetic acid in the stop bath. I remember the magic of seeing an image appear under a safelight in the tray of developer. It was like a miracle to a child who had not yet learned about chemistry.

Painting came second. My mother was a Cooper Union graduate and had always been a painter: she took me to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York after every appointment downtown at our dentist’s office. That is probably where I developed my appreciation of antique furniture in addition to my appreciation of paintings.

The only harpsichord I saw as a child is that massive Italian instrument with the unique stand that the museum liked to display: At the time I didn’t even know what it was.

Hazel: Then what happened?

John: We moved from the East Bronx to the suburbs when I was eight. My father founded a conservative synagogue and sent me to Sunday Hebrew school. My mother started me on piano lessons. I told them I would do one but not both. They gave me the choice and I took piano lessons. It was an easy deal because my father was not religious about Judaism but my mother was passionate about culture. Then my father weighed in. He made a darkroom in our new home. He stopped black and white photography and switched to 35 mm color slides. He gave me the used Rolleiflex he had bought at the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow and he made me the family B&W photographer. I made portraits as a part time job from the time I was twelve until I graduated high school. I wanted to be a second Yousuf Karsh.

Hazel: But you became a doctor. What made you change your mind about photography?

John: My father, who was a lawyer, advised this: “Work with people; they are interesting.”  Working with people as a photographer is not as helpful or satisfying as working with people as a doctor.  And a photographic career is a highly competitive business. Like all the arts, but success is not assured or easy for an artist. I enjoyed being a family doctor and I miss the daily interaction with my patients.

Hazel: It’s truly remarkable that you continued to work as a physician until recently. How did you come to make harpsichords?

John: I married a college classmate in 1958 and my parents bought us a piano when I entered medical school. My wife taught third grade at P.S. # 3  in the South Bronx and she met a coworker who was musical. This teacher encouraged me to return to the piano and introduced me to a greater and deeper classical music that I had not heard as a child. I bought a harpsichord record, then saw an ad for a harpsichord kit in “The Saturday Review of Literature” magazine. I had to go check it out by going to the Zuckermann shop in Greenwich Village. I saw a walnut case, cherry wood key harpsichord which I knew I could build. It all came together: music, antiques and “do it yourself”.

Hazel: How did you know you could make it?

John: I have said that my father was a lawyer. But he grew up as a farm boy on a Zionist farm in South Jersey, he could fix anything and make anything: Woodworking, electrical work, plumbing, machinery, gardening. During the war right after the depression when he was a young dad with no extra funds, he made a photographic enlarger from a used lens he bought on Canal Street and a pile of used lumber. He taught me to make things. I knew I could make a harpsichord. Unlike a piano, a harpsichord is a simple thing. But the kit was $150 and I didn’t have $150 at the time. It would take 90 hours to build. I was in medical school and I didn’t have even 90 extra minutes. It was to be six years before I made my first harpsichord in 1965. What fun!  I made three more from scratch without kits in the following four years. Then I stopped to raise a family and pay attention to my work.

Some of John’s photographic work

Hazel: What about the painting, and the photography?

John: I always had a darkroom and kept up with photography until the digital revolution made chemical supplies and the variety of papers and films that Kodak used to manufacture less easy to find. As for painting, I appreciate beauty but am not talented with line or with composition. So I copy what I like. My favorite painter is Jacob Van Ruisdael, Goethe called him the “Poet of Painting”. I have copied a dozen of his 17th century Dutch landscapes. My favorite artist is Edward Hopper. I have copied many of his paintings as well.

Hazel: I like Hopper’s art also. His iconic Nighthawks reminds me of the movie The Sting. Love that movie! Anyway, I digress… What do you think is the difference between a fine painter and an “artist”?

John: An artist can express and communicate an emotional message. A fine painter is a skilled craftsman who can also create beauty. Those are my personal definitions: others may disagree.

John in a room full of his paintings

Hazel: I guess beauty is beauty, original or not. I know you made more harpsichords after the hiatus. How did you come back to harpsichord making?

John: My wife, Joan, died in 1986. I married Ingrid in 1990. Ingrid was a musician. I made her a harpsichord. I remembered how much I enjoyed that. A harpsichord is a combination of three things. It is a simple machine, a wooden musical instrument and a piece of art furniture. Making a simple machine which works well is gratifying. Making a wooden acoustic instrument is exciting. Making a beautiful piece of antique “art furniture” is aesthetically creative. So I made six more over the next 30 years and I mentored six high school students in making harpsichords as well.

Another gorgeous harpsichord created by John
Dr. Brodsky is a good performer as well!

Hazel: I’m awed by your harpsichords. They sound beautiful and the paintings on the soundboards are remarkably gorgeous. Are your children musical?

John: The three I had with Joan enjoy music. My girls took some lessons. My boy picked up the guitar. Of my two adopted children with Ingrid, Miranda is an excellent violinist and Eric plays the trumpet in the school band. Miranda is learning the keyboard by herself. She will inherit her mother’s harpsichord. Some of the other harpsichords I have made will go to my grand children.

Hazel: What else do you like to do?

John: I like to write letters. It keeps me busy; especially in these polarized political times and with the urgency of the damage being done to our ecological support system. I am a member of an organization which studies the effect of affect/script psychology on motivated behavior. It seems to me that “Know thyself” is important for our human species else we continue traveling on what may be a suicidal path. I am also interested in the “hard problem” of consciousness: How does matter make mind? I have quite enough to keep me occupied. Thanks for your interest.

John in his harpsichord workshop

Perhaps Dr. Brodsky’s continuous efforts to recreate and cultivate himself make his spirits stay youthful. His many endeavors and achievements are inspiring and I hope to be as spry, fulfilled and inquisitive as him when/if I reach his stage of life. Thank you for sharing your life story, John!

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  • Ann BobesNovember 16, 2019 - 7:50 am

    Thank you for this vignette.  —Ann BobesReplyCancel