Bob Mathews Transitions from Acute Care to Cute AnimalsDec 30, 2021 11:47AM ● By Tara Spencer
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Artists don’t need a good bedside manner, but Bob Mathews’ voice is steady, warm, and calming, immediately putting the listener at ease—a trait that was no doubt useful in his former line of work.
“The ER can be 15 minutes of boredom, and then 10 minutes of just fear and chaos,” he said. “You never know what’s on your doorstep...A lot of those people need a doctor right away, and I kind of enjoyed being in the middle of that. It was a good fit for me.”
Mathews retired from ER medicine in 2017, but he’s not done working. His focus has switched from practicing acute care to painting cute animals using his own unique color schemes.
“I don’t paint with much realism in mind,” Mathews said. “I mean, if a cow needs to have green on it, I can put green on it.”
His artwork isn’t limited to animals, though. A look at his Instagram account shows vivid paintings of people and animals, as well as a few sculptures he’s created using items he found in an architectural salvage yard. But painting is his calling for now, one that he developed later in life after taking an overview course of the arts at Hibbing Community College in Minnesota.
“We painted, we drew, we did some things in silver—we worked with all kinds of different media, [it] was really, really fun,” he said.
Mathews met one of his biggest supporters, fellow artist Robert “Bob” Hocking, while living in Hibbing. He said Hocking consistently encouraged him. “He was such a positive individual in so many different ways,” Mathews added. “So I thought, ‘what the heck?’”
In high school, Mathews took drafting classes and said he enjoyed them. But his guidance counselor pushed him toward a vocational school.
He got two weeks in and decided it wasn’t for him. “This was during the Vietnam War,” he said. “And so, I enlisted.” Mathews was assigned to a Naval air base stateside, where he trained as an electronics technician.
Mathews said the service “straightened him out.” It also made him realize he could do anything he wanted, so he followed in the footsteps of one of his uncles and went into medicine.
That wasn’t his only foray into military life, though. “The second time was after med school,” he said. “This time I enlisted in a reserve Army unit (325th General Hospital).” He reached the rank of major during his service. “So, I’ve experienced the military as an enlisted man and an officer. Believe me, being an officer is the way to go!”
The ER doctor later found painting as a creative outlet. “I was sort of a weekend painter, you know, when time would allow, I’d work on something,” he said. “Now that I’m retired, I can work as hard as I’d like on it.”
In 2015, he published a book of paintings titled Imaginary Friends 2013-2015. The collection of portraits features imaginary people “with a link to the fringe.” However, they were influenced by real people, several of whom he encountered in his role as an emergency physician.
Mathews’ work has been in nearly 60 group shows and he has had seven solo exhibits. He said his first one was around seven years ago. “It was an amazing feeling. I mean, I got an email that I had been accepted and, you know, I jumped up and down like, like a little kid...it was so exciting.”
One gallery he’s shown in is the Open Gallery in Vincennes, Indiana, where he met owners Michael and Kimberly Mullen. Michael wrote in an email that there was something about Mathews’ work, and his cover letter, that produced a strong response from the former English professor. “He was just getting started in his art career and I thought his work was interesting and felt he had great potential.”
Michael and Mathews have met in person only a handful of times, but they correspond regularly through “snail mail.” Michael said Mathews is thoughtful and caring, qualities one hopes to find in a doctor, adding, “Bob has compassion that I have not seen in enough of the health care professionals I have encountered over the years.”
In Mathews’ artwork, that compassion leads to intriguing glimpses into the lives of animals and humans alike. “There’s an energy level that spills over to my paintings from the ER,” Mathews said. “Bold colors, black lines, etc.”
His art made a strong impression on another audience when a painting his daughter posted on a website led to his first commissions. He received several emails from group members asking if he would paint their pets. Mathews met with them virtually, and would have them send eight or 10 photos of their pets from different angles, with several closeups of their faces. Then he would send progress photos.
“I met the most interesting people from coast to coast,” he said.
Mathews has also shown his work on both coasts, from California to New York, though he said he has no aspirations of “being in a big New York City gallery anymore.”
“It would have been nice once, but that’s not gonna happen,” he said. “I know that. But if I could meet some more people [through] doing commissions...and have that kind of back and forth with them—that’s just so much fun.”
Visit bobmathewsart.com for more information.
This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.