May 2012

Living through art and science

Schimke stayed at the local county hospital for three days. Because he had served in the Public Health Service, he was considered a veteran. With Tabor’s contacts at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Jones got the necessary paperwork to have Schimke quickly transferred to the Palo Alto veteran’s hospital, which had a better spinal cord injury center.

In the second week after the accident, as a slow recovery loomed, Schimke says, “I remember thinking, ‘All right, Bob, what the hell are you going to do now? You better start doing something!’ I was determined I was going to get better.”

The accident left Schimke’s spinal cord damaged but not completely severed, so he has some sensory and motor capabilities in his arms and feet. “My hands are like claws. I can grab a pencil and write my name badly,” he says. “I can hold a brush.”

Having fun
On his property in Palo Alto, which is almost an acre in size, Schimke does his art in a garage that has been converted into a gallery. He also makes beaded necklaces. The place is filled with his work, which includes drip paintings in the style of Jackson Pollock and a series done with masks mounted on foam boards. “I’ve painted over 400 different things in my lifetime,” says Schimke. Some of his work is on display at ASBMB headquarters in Rockville, Md.

Schimke says the artists he admires are Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and, up to a point, Pollock. “Other than the drip paintings that he did, [Pollock] was not a very good artist,” he says. “If Jackson Pollock’s paintings are worth millions and millions of dollars, hell, I can do that stuff just as well as he could. Indeed, I can.”

An assistant helps him open up paint cans, stretch out canvases and clean up. Because of his limited movement, Schimke works on canvases stretched out on plywood and no more than four feet wide. He attaches sticks, the kind used to mix paint, to his paintbrushes so he can reach two feet across the canvas. Then he wheels himself around to the other side to get the remaining two feet. At noon sharp each day, a shrill, 19-year-old Siamese cat makes Schimke stop his work because it insists on having its lunch of turkey breast. “It eats basically what I have for lunch,” chuckles Schimke.

Despite all he has accomplished as a scientist, Schimke says he doesn’t miss science. He tried to stay in touch with his areas of expertise after his accident by continuing to serve as a JBC associate editor, but “it became obvious that I was not keeping up,” he says. “I resigned.”

He is not sure what kind of artist he would have been had the accident not happened. But he is sure of one thing: The art he would have produced would not have been “nearly as interesting and as much fun!”

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I had the great privilege of a personal tour of Robert's studio and home about 5 years ago while visiting Palo Alto. I was very impressed with the level of dedication he shows in all of his artistic endeavors. Hundreds of wonderful necklaces line the hallway. The shear volume of work is impressive by itself. His painting studio is one to be envied by any artist frustrated with a lack of production space. The visual energy he creates is all about the place as many canvases hang on the walls in view, while others lie about on the floor in mid production. Paint is literally everywhere. His growth as an artist can be traced through the many paintings and each new one seems to be more impressive than the one before. As an artist myself I understand the the creative "carrot on a stick" that his process and artistic journey represents. It boils down to "If you think that one was good, wait till you get a look at my next one". Proud nephew, Matt Bazemore


I have been a close friend, and colleague, of Bob Schimke for many years. He is an exceptionally dedicated individual, whatever he does. I have enjoyed our frequent visits together, in recent years. I greatly enjoyed reading this article in ASBMB Today. Schimke is a wonderful person, it has been wonderful knowing him and interacting with him. Charles Yanofsky


Life without appreciation of at least some forms of art, be it literature, music, painting, sculpture or others, is not worth living. A person who can be creative in both science and art is doubly blessed. We hope that Prof. Schimke will go on shining in his present creative phase for a long time to come and will produce many more of those beautiful paintings for us to admire. I especially liked his 'Four Seasons' and 'Orange Red'.


It is wonderful to see such an inspiring article about a great scientist who has contributed so much to the biological sciences and to learn that, despite adversity, he has a second career as an artist. Keep it up Bob! All the best Dick Hanson


My undergrad Bio mentor, the late J. Fred (Paulo) Dice, did his PhD work with Schimke at Stanford, and I thus have a lineage connection with Bob, although I never met him. However, I read many of his papers, and I still have in my file cabinet a classic paper of his on measuring protein turnover and calculating the fractional catabolic rate and half-life. I am pleased to hear about his life after Science, and his artwork. I particularly liked his painting "Genetics". Jonathan D. Smith, Cleveland Clinic



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