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In the Alvarado Hospital operating room, orthopedic surgeon and spine specialist Dr. John Finkenberg works millimeter by millimeter to perform delicate procedures. He takes the same meticulous approach in his home workshop, where he creates the plaster and clay models for his bronze sculptures.

Since opening his San Diego surgical practice 15 years ago, Dr. Finkenberg has become known for his expertise in spines — and bronze. One of his pieces, “The Art of Surgery II,” a life-size bronze of a surgeon’s hands, is on permanent home at the Johns Hopkins Orthopaedic Surgery Department in Baltimore.

Fortunately, San Diegans have the opportunity to see Dr. Finkenberg’s work much closer to home. A similar piece, “The Art of Surgery I” is on exhibit at the UCLA Department of Orthopaedics in Los Angeles. Dr. Finkenberg also has one of his bronze sculptures on display at his medical office on the Alvarado Hospital campus.

Surgeon’s Bronze Sculptures Imitate Life

Dr. Finkenberg received his medical education and training at UCLA. Additionally, he completed a fellowship in spine surgery at Johns Hopkins University. But when it comes to sculpture, Dr. Finkenberg is completely self taught.

He became interested in sculpture about 15 years ago, when one of his children took an art class. The teacher used alginate, a seaweed-based compound, to demonstrate how to make life-size plastic casts of various body parts. Fascinated, Dr. Finkenberg began experimenting with alginate on his own. He was particularly interested in hands, and in how surgeons use them during surgery. He didn’t have to look far to find a hand model — himself.

“My hand sculptures are meant to show actual positions during surgery,” Dr. Finkenberg said. “I already know what those positions are.”

Each alginate impression takes about 15 minutes to harden. Then, plaster is poured into the alginate mold. After the plaster has dried, the alginate is peeled away.

While the alginate faithfully reproduces every wrinkle, vein and pore, the process is far from perfect. There are usually cracks in the plaster. Whole sections may even be missing.

That’s where Dr. Finkenberg’s artistry and medical training come in.

“As a surgeon, I really understand what lies beneath the skin,” he said. “The mold may produce only half or three-quarters of the figure, but it gives me something with which to start working.”

In addition to his life-size hand sculptures, Dr. Finkenberg sculpts full-body figures measuring 12 inches or less. Other sculptors have asked him why he works on such a small scale. Dr. Finkenberg said he enjoys the detailed work and bringing each piece to perfection.

Dr. Finkenberg works on his art as his schedule permits, usually in short, 10- or 15-minute segments. It typically takes him more than a year to complete the model for each figure.

Once a model is complete, Dr. Finkenberg sends it to the Shidoni foundry located outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, workers use the lost-wax technique to cast the final bronze. Dr. Finkenberg works with the foundry to complete the final touches. There are than 20 different patinas for bronze to choose from, and Dr. Finkenberg prefers “museum antiquities.” He continues working with the foundry until the shading is exactly right.

Each piece costs between $3,000 to $10,000 to complete.

The Art of Science & Medicine

Although he is making a name for himself as a sculptor, Dr. Finkenberg’s creativity extends beyond the visual arts. During his surgical residency training, he developed a noninvasive device to evaluate wrist fractures. The small bones of the wrist are difficult to view using conventional X-ray imaging. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is effective, but very expensive. For this reason, many physicians opt to cast possible wrist fractures — just in case. However, the resulting three to four weeks of inconvenience to the patient may not always be necessary.

Dr. Finkenberg found a way to evaluate and diagnose these small fractures by using vibration. He holds the patent for this device and is considering possible new applications for the technology.

In the meantime, Dr. Finkenberg is focused on bringing his artwork to life. He compares working with clay to the way some sculptors describe working with stone. He starts with a sizeable hunk, and then gently probes at it to find the hidden figure inside.

“With spine surgery, everything you do is in millimeter cuts, one scrape at a time, he said. “Sculpture is like that, too. Of course, if you make a mistake, you can always smear it out and grab another hunk of clay.