Doctor's Office Art

Drawing a blank.


They seem like a nice enough family, with matching smiles and outfits and eyes that won’t leave my face no matter where I sit in the waiting room. “We’re here for you,” they seem to say. “It’ll be okay—you’re not dying of anything.”

I nod.

“Sure, we’re all dying all the time, but not right now, not today.” I nod again, in awe of how much this wholesome, multi-generational gringo family’s collective voice sounds like my own.

I’m not sure how a doctor’s office goes about picking stock photos, but they had picked the right one here.

Doctors’ offices are liminal spaces, each an in-between that’s unfamiliar and often not particularly comfortable, in which we’re nonetheless meant to take off our clothes, reveal the softest and most intimate parts of ourselves, and sit alongside a total stranger to look at images of the mysterious gears hidden and failing underneath our skin.

I’ve seen a lot of doctor’s office art over the years. I remember the boat I focused on while tears ran down my face during a root canal. The dozens of different-and-yet-somehow-identical waiting rooms with scenes of hunting dogs and pheasants, old English countrysides at odds with a carpet pattern better suited to a cruise ship or an airport Marriott. I think often about the comic strip in my gynecologist’s bathroom, a special kind of bad art in itself: It shows a nude man standing in front of a mammography unit.

Then there’s the abstract painting in my therapist’s office. Cornflower blue and turquoise and cerulean swirls kissed by gold flecks. “What color is your fear?” my therapist asks. I never know where to look, so I stare at the wall, but not for so long that she thinks I’m avoiding eye contact. I’ve killed every succulent I’ve bought since moving to Los Angeles and I don’t know how to change a tire or how to calm the voice that tells me the world is going to split apart at the seams and that I’m going to die in a flood, a fire, an earthquake, a nuclear blast, at the mall, the movie theater, in line at 7-Eleven while buying a Diet Coke that is undoubtedly also going to kill me. But I don’t tell her that. Instead I say “blue” and immediately wonder if this is because of the painting. Cornflower blue, specifically. With gold flecks.

It’s important that office art go beyond the bland, low-key badness of those massive Ikea posters of taxicabs and the Eiffel Tower. Anyone can buy those. There’s no art to that bad art. Those are for dorm rooms; for people who’ve yet to decide what a place should be. But doctors’ offices know what they are—a vacuum, a void, a shadow-place where you’re a name on a clipboard—and their art reflects that. It’s never literal, like the lovingly-rendered bread art at Panera. (Can you imagine waiting rooms covered in watercolor drawings of dental tools, or paint-by-numbers posters of gauze strips and rubbing alcohol?) Doctors' office art takes us beyond the literal and observable; they’re the only places where a framed picture of a boat belonging to no one is really at home—and the farther from the ocean, the better.

Doctor’s offices, and the art within them, exist on a plane separate from the other mundane, too-real spaces we know and occupy: the places where we worry about expenses and insurance premiums, of family members’ concerned looks, of medications on bedside tables, where we cannot help but dwell on the “what if” instead of what is—the very thing I’m unlearning in that room with the supportive blue swirls.

But at least I have those swirls. And you have your context-less boat or your “live love laugh” decal above the receptionist’s sliding window, the stock photo of a smiling family across a wall.

And so we sit on paper-covered examination tables, quietly among those taxicabs and toothy white people and whorls of color, soothed into a place of stillness and nothingness, a state of being where we can smile at the majestic horse above a water cooler and think, “Right now, at least, I am okay.”

Alex Alvarez is an L.A.-based writer who needs to make another doctor's appointment soon because WebMD told her she's already dead.