Interview with Mark Vonnegut, artist, musician, author, and pediatrician
by Joan Clifford, Executive Director
Interview with Mark Vonnegut, artist, musician, author, and pediatrician for over 40 years, who recently closed his practice MV Pediatrics in Quincy. Vonnegut is the author of three books, The Eden Express, Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So, and The Heart of Caring: A Life in Pediatrics. Mark Vonnegut will be exhibiting his paintings at the Milton Art Center, 2/2/-4/6/24, with an opening reception, public invited, 2/2/24, 6-9pm. Vonnegut is the son of the celebrated author Kurt Vonnegut, husband to Barbara Sibert Vonnegut, father of three sons, Zachary, Eli, and Oliver and a Milton resident.
What do you think you share with your father? How does he show up in your life now?
“We both shared a belief in the importance of the arts. There is a magic in the creating of music, painting, writing…although I think writing is the hardest. When you get a sentence that really works, that’s satisfying. It’s hard to get it right though.
My father was not famous and wealthy when we were growing up. I grew up thinking of him as a younger brother I had to look out for. I was 21 when Slaughter House-Five was published and became a best seller. I was out of the house. Being a writer helped save my father, a wounded World War ll vet with PTSD. It allowed him to write out his experiences and have a conversation with millions of people. I think what he gave me was that if he can do it, I can do it.”
What do you get from creating art?
“It’s almost like meditation, it’s another level of consciousness. You look at it, what’s good, what’s bad. The process of making it work, that’s very restful, like meditation. Painting is lovely when it works.
I like the lightness of watercolors, also the fact that’s its water soluble and can be washed out. It’s easy to wash out the brushes. I tried oil painting and ruined a lot of clothing and furniture. I also like working on paper. I like that I can go over and over the stroke to darken; it’s more natural to me. The other thing I like about watercolors is that sometimes you can get a good painting in a day.
I started painting again more seriously when I was on call waiting for an emergency. I could stop and start it again easily if I had to respond to an emergency.
Art is a way for me to relate to other people. Art would be pointless if another person didn’t see it. It gives people a way to relate to each other.”
Would you choose the medical profession again if you had a do-over?
“I loved learning medicine. I think I got in under the wire for patient care. Nowadays when students come out of medical school, they are a half million dollars in debt. Pediatrics does not make a lot of money. I think, unfortunately now, the question is, do I get to help people? The insurance companies regulate everything. Painfully, I would have to say maybe I’d be a doctor again in Europe or someplace that allows more patient care, but at the moment, here, it’s all about greed and money. I would probably recommend to someone that they become a PA, (Physician Assistant) to be able to have more time with patients.
Barbara and I tried everything to keep MV Pediatrics going. We were forced to close, economics, rising rent. They are bulldozing the building to make condos.”
What advice would you give to parents?
“I think it’s infinitely harder to be a child now than when I was growing up in the 50’s. We had a true democracy, a common purpose that is lacking now. Kids are worrying… can they get into a good college… get a job… can they afford to get a house someday… it’s harder. We also really know now how bad alcohol and drugs are for you, especially if you are dealing with anxiety and depression.”
Do your sons take advice from you?
“All three of them spent time with me in the office. They thought it was a lot of work; they took naps when they got home. They work now as an English teacher, a lawyer, and the youngest is majoring in Philosophy and minoring in Child Study and Human development.
I think watching me as they grew up, they have me as an example of how you can struggle and get through illness to have a good life. They have friends with mental health challenges and ask me to talk with them. I’m always happy to talk to anyone who is struggling. It’s important to know that you’re not alone. There’s no shame or blame. A lot of people have gotten well. I work as an advisor to some doctors- it helps me. Recovery and service go together. Being of service helps me.”
Do you have a favorite book of your father’s?
“The Sirens of Titan” which I think is one of his longest books. It’s one where he has a believable female character. He couldn’t write about women to save his life. He has more of a plot in “Bluebeard,” and “Player Piano,” which was recently optioned. it’s a possibility that could be made into a movie someday.”
What makes your days enjoyable now? What do you see starting or expanding on in the upcoming years?
“I’d love to make more music, have a band again, rock & roll more so than jazz. I play the sax. Painting, swimming, cooking.
How did you come to choose Milton to live in?
“Milton is where I started practicing as a pediatrician. When I remarried it made sense to live here. I love the proximity to Boston, the Blue Hills, the Neponset River and the buildings, it’s a great place.”