Not many artists can describe the beginning of their careers like this: “In medical school, I started to do political cartoons against the Vietnam war.” But Dr. Mark Podwal — a dermatologist, painter, art history professor, filmmaker and author — can.
Even more improbable is that he can explain how all these careers neatly fit together, as if there’s nothing remarkable about a practicing physician whose artwork happens to be in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection and who moonlights as an illustrator for The New York Times.
Where to begin?
How about with Podwal’s new exhibit, “Old and the New: Mark Podwal’s Textiles for the Altneuschul,” at the Yeshiva University Museum. The show features six new textiles designed by Podwal and commissioned by the oldest running synagogue in the world, the Altneuschul in Prague (established: 1270).
The commission came about last year, after Podwal struck up a relationship with the president of the Jewish community in Prague. Two years earlier, Podwal had co-produced a PBS documentary about the city’s 500-year-old Jewish cemetery. More recently, Podwal had invited the Jewish community’s president to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and that led to the new commission.
“He was a great opera lover, and I said that I’ll get you tickets to the opera if you come to New York,” Podwal, who is 66, explained over the phone. It happens that Podwal has a connection with the Met Opera, too — he recently designed posters for its production of “Nabucco,” Verdi’s Hebrew Bible opera.
Podwal’s connection to Prague goes back further though. He was born in Queens, but fell in love with the city after his first trip there in the early-1980s, with Elie Wiesel. Podwal had asked Wiesel if he’d co-author a book about the golem, and after the Nobel laureate saw an illustration Podwal did for The Times, he agreed. (The book came out in 1983.)
“He saw my drawing and sent me a hand-written note,” Podwal recalled of Wiesel. “I remember it very well: he said, ‘Your drawing was very eloquent. Let’s meet.’”
The drawing was of the Eiffel Tower with oil spewing out of it, which Podwal drew for the op-ed page. It was 1977, and the French government had just released a Lebanese terrorist involved in the murder of Israeli athletes in Munich. Ever since, Podwal has been one of the paper’s go-to illustrators, usually on topics having to do with the Middle East (though he turned down an assignment to illustrate an op-ed written by Yasir Arafat), Jewish and medical subjects.
Podwal has no formal training as artist. “From the age of 12,” he says, “my parents pushed me to go to medical school.” Not that he had any problem with that, he said, only that he also wanted to find an outlet for his art.
Strangely enough, it was in medical school where he first found a place to publish his art.
As a medical student at NYU in the late-’60s, he began designing anti-war posters. A few years later, he illustrated several covers of The Journal of the American Medical Association. When an editor at The Times saw some of his work, his career as an illustrator took off.
In fact, it was actually as much for his artwork that he got his dermatology residency as for his stellar grades. He remembers that his interview with the chair of the department lasted no more than a few minutes — and all they talked about was his art.
His new exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum (15 W. 16th St.,  294-8330) isn’t as unrelated to his medical practice as you’d think, either.
Podwal explained how it happened: he was leaving his medical office one day last spring when he bumped into a curator at the museum. Podwal told him about the commission he had with the Altneuschul — for new Torah scroll covers; a covering for the cantor’s podium; curtains for the ark — and the curator thought it would make a great exhibition. The museum even had a model of the synagogue from three decades ago, made for an exhibit it put on about the world’s 10 most famous synagogues.
“It’s a synagogue we have a number of connections with,” said Jacob Wisse, director of the museum. On the chance encounter of Podwal and the other museum curator, Wisse said: “It was somewhat fortuitous; a real New York story.”
When Podwal was asked how he manages it all — the medical practice; the art career; even teaching art history to NYU college students — he didn’t have an elaborate answer. “Fortunately,” he said, “I can get to work very quickly.”
Then he hung up his office phone. He was off to see another patient.