Walk into the offices at 4717 Highway 61 in White Bear Lake and you’ll encounter a riot of paintings, with female forms rendered in expressive black strokes, richly layered jewel tones and kaleidoscopic patterns. Wide-eyed faces emerge from tangles of flowers, while beautiful women languish in contemplation. Settle into a chair in front of a large canvas teeming with pattern, texture and hue. Is this a dream? No—you’re just about to get your teeth cleaned with Dr. Sarah Boo, practicing dentist and artist extraordinaire.
Boo studied science in college, with no exposure to fine art. In 1994, about five years after she graduated from dental school, Boo found herself lost in Minneapolis and drove past the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. She had some time to kill, so she went inside. “I felt like I had entered a brave new world,” she says. “I went back and back and back, got art supplies, read biographies of artists and became a closet painter at night."
Soon, Boo’s closet life as an artist merged with her public life as a dentist as her paintings populated the walls of her dental office. She found that visual arts practice and dentistry share more than meets the eye: Both dentistry and painting require special instruments and materials, both demand a high level of visual acuity and discipline, and both necessitate a willingness to start over if the results are less than acceptable. “Dentistry is very much an art form,” Boo says.
“I have gotten all kinds of feedback—some very positive and some not so positive,” Boo recounts. One woman sat in the dental chair in front of one of Boo’s large paintings and proceeded to make negative comments about the painting. “I never did tell her that [the painting] was one of mine,” Boo says. “It still makes me laugh!”
Dental assistant and seven-year employee Hlee Thao says, “It’s not at all a typical dentist’s office; it’s more like an art gallery—people are surprised when they walk in.” When Boo makes new work, she simply rearranges the installation in her office to accommodate the piece. “[The art] is relaxing for me because it doesn’t feel like I’m at work,” Thao says. “And it’s somehow therapeutic [for patients]. It creates another atmosphere, it distracts them and it’s a great conversation maker.”
According to Thao, a handful of patients come into office just to see Boo’s latest artworks. Deborah Anderson has been a patient of Boo since she finished dental school. “I like her office because she has created an environment that is very personal,” Anderson says. “A lot of people dread the dentist, but there is a sense in her office that she’s involved in her patient’s dental health because she puts a tremendous amount of energy into it. She’s made her office a reflection of her practice.”
Boo is primarily drawn to the human face and form. “I have little interest in landscapes or bowls of fruit,” she says. “When I start a piece, I do the background first then move to the clothes, hair and hands. I leave the face for last, and the eyes for dead last, because they are my favorite part.”
While she often uses a combination of acrylics and oil pastels, she continues to experiment with other materials. “I absolutely love the modeling pastes, and a trip to the art store for me is mesmerizing,” she says. “I am so happy that I got a job before I discovered my love of paint!” Otherwise, the artist says she would go broke feeding her habit of buying art supplies.
There is always a canvas-in-progress chez Boo. She lives alone and leaves the painting and paints out where she can see them and use them at any time. “I have a tendency to paint more in the winter because it is cold and dark, but if something inspires me, the rest of my life gets to be an inconvenience. Then I will not rest until it is finished,” Boo says.
She has had four art exhibitions since she started painting, but she has a hard time parting with her work. “I have sold several and then went right home and tried to paint the same thing again,” she says. “I finally decided that since I had a day job, there was no reason for me to have to sell my paintings.”
“Sitting in the dentist’s chair, I look at the paintings and wonder what was going through her head, why she chose her subjects and what’s the deeper meaning,” Anderson says. “It shows that she has a number of things going on in her life. Dentists are people too, and [Boo’s art] humanizes her.”