In retirement, Dr. Robert Ghatan has discovered a surprise passion paralleling his devotion to orthopedic surgery — landscape painting.
The longtime San Marino resident has dedicated an upstairs wing of his Shenandoah Road home to his art, allowing himself a comfortable corner in which to re-create his memorable vacations amid the comforting sunlight and view of trees that his wide windows afford. Numerous mounted canvases in varying stages of completion adorn the walls, as Ghatan waits for just the right color to come to mind before he takes the next stroke.
Asked how often he finds himself at the easel, Ghatan said, “Anytime I have free time.
“Probably, at minimum, it’s at least four or five times a week,” he continued. “Time goes by so fast. You sit, and suddenly you’ve been sitting for three hours. Time flies when you’re painting.”
Having set a goal of about 300 paintings, Ghatan had completed 65 when he was interviewed recently. He began last year after retiring as an orthopedic surgeon, inspired by his travels and a lifelong curiosity about the medium. Born and educated in Tehran, Iran, Ghatan completed his residency in Quebec City and was a doctor at the 1976 Summer Olympics in nearby Montreal. There he met a colleague who encouraged him to relocate to Southern California.
Ghatan did so, and after working for what would become Cigna he started a private practice in 1977 — in Alhambra and then San Gabriel — that he maintained until his retirement. Nowadays, he is consulted by or lectures medical students at USC.
As for painting, “I had some interest, always, but I didn’t do anything because I was so busy practicing,” Ghatan explained. “I don’t do surgery anymore. Surgery was creative. It was a ‘treatment’ for me. It kept me busy. Now this keeps me busy.”
The ambidextrous Ghatan can adapt some of the traits he found useful as a surgeon, particularly hand-eye coordination and — should he ever gravitate toward portraits — precise knowledge of the human body. For now, though, the memory of the beautiful places he’s seen since retirement will do.
“It’s expressive, painting,” he said. “Not all of them, but 90% of the paintings are the areas that I have visited in the U.S. or Europe. When I go visit somewhere, I have a small booklet and I’ll do the sketch, I make some notes and then I take a picture with my iPhone and come here and put them together.
“Not every beautiful picture is paintable. That’s one thing,” Ghatan added. “You’ve got to pick and choose which one you’re going to paint. Certain things that are really beautiful are not paintable. You have to modify a little bit what you see, to cut certain areas that make a painting too busy. Make it simple and then it becomes a nice painting.”
Ghatan’s setup includes a printer for those iPhone photos, and also a table stacked with books on the history and technique of painting. (Some were gifts, he noted.) A friend who teaches painting at Pasadena City College comes by once a month to critique Ghatan’s work.
Usually, Ghatan has made gifts of his paintings, but he recently exhibited several of them at Crowell Public Library, where some were sold as donations to the library and the city’s Fire Department. Ghatan said he wished for the sales to benefit the department in particular, not least because of firefighters’ work repelling house fires in his neighborhood. Years ago, Ghatan suffered cardiac arrest, and he is eternally grateful for the department’s quick response in getting him to Huntington Hospital.
“I’m a doctor and I’ve saved so many lives, but my work, compared to what they do, is nothing,” he said. “It’s invaluable.”
The retiree said he had his eye on Japan and Russia as destinations for upcoming trips. When he worked, Ghatan said, he would normally vacation for two weeks a year — one in Quebec, where his family has since immigrated, and another elsewhere — but now spends more time abroad. Ghatan added that the Mondsee (“moon lake”) in Austria has been his favorite site thus far.
“I painted it three times, because I like it so much,” he said. “There are a lot of beautiful places, but that one really stuck in my mind. The colors were so beautiful.”
In addition to documenting his own travels, Ghatan will take requests, too. During the interview, he was working on a depiction of a Canadian waterfall for a friend. For the foreseeable future, that’s how Ghatan said he plans on filling his time.
“I love to see a patient, and I still do a little work twice a week,” he said. “I’ll go to the county hospital or to Keck hospital with the medical students and see patients. But sometimes you have to stop and do something else.”