Ko Iki Museum ~ Kathryn Ko, MD, MFA

Art can perforate your skull rendering you unable to move, awestruck by its power. It’s that wild companion who leads you away from the textbooks to embark on unfamiliar journeys. Like a canary in the depths of the mind, art diagnoses the atmosfear. Joseph Bueys said, “Every human being is an artist.” At the very least, every human being needs the artist. Art is medicine.

Medical practice itself, too, is an art form.  I’m a surgeon even while holding a brush. Every painting is an operation, a poem that may ease a neurosurgical heartbreak. An artist needs to create to live, while a surgeon lives to save lives. A neurosurgeon painstakingly reconstructs a fractured skull whereas an artist takes those shattered bits, adds a hinge and transforms it into something new. It is a reciprocal relationship; artists divine possibilities and ideas, and we physicians assess their feasibility. We need each other to innovate. To heal.

During my time in medical school, my mother pursued a masters of fine art in painting at the same university. I found relief from my textbooks by visiting the student studios, where the creative atmosphere was fire. Two and a half decades later, to my amazement I became an art student. I am fortunate. Many in the medical field don’t have this opportunity or time to engage with the arts, missing out on the deep impact it can have on their lives. The arts can lighten the intense weight of a medical career.

Inspired by the innovative “Little Free Libraries” movement, the Ko Iki Museum integrates art within the medical school campus. After visiting the Museum of Contemporary Art in Patchogue where a “mini” museum stood outside in the sculpture garden, I was determined to have one installed at my medical school. I then directed the construction of the Ko Iki Museum (pencil drawing by Dr. Ko). The Ko Iki embarked on a 5000-miles journey from New York across the US and Pacific Ocean, changing hands seven times, before finally arriving at JABSOM. The word “Iki,” meaning “tiny” in Hawaiian, captures the spirit of this project to bring art to medical schools, JABSOM being the first.  Individuals are invited to contribute mini artworks, unleashing their imagination on blank canvas, and returning the piece to be showcased in the museum. At the heart of the Ko Iki Museum is the idea that art, in all its diverse forms, is necessary for well-being.

Long after I depart the operating room, neurosurgery remains my chosen medium. When lost and unsure, I listen for the birdsong, my reminder to keep art close. Art, tiny or grand, can ignite our minds so we are inspired to move a museum across a continent and an ocean.