Oral Surgeon Continues Facial Artistry with Clay
By Ashley Festa
James Duncan, D.D.S., lets his love of surgery flow into his artistic leisure time in the most natural way—sculpting.
After visiting the Louvre and Rodin museums in France and seeing Michelangelo’s sculptures in Italy, Dr. Duncan started reading books about sculpting and decided to give it a try.
He began experimenting with the art form about 35 years ago, but he stopped sculpting because “water-based clay is very dirty, and I didn’t have a studio,” said Dr. Duncan, adjunct professor in the Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery department in the School of Dentistry at UT Health San Antonio. But he never gave up his interest in the craft.
Fast forward 20 years, and Dr. Duncan revived and indulged his delight of sculpting.
“I enclosed an area, and it became my studio so I could make it as dirty as I want,” Dr. Duncan said. He took lessons under a talented French sculptor in New York and focused his attention on portrait sculpting.
“I’ve always been interested in maxillofacial surgery, always interested in seeing the wonders of the face,” he said. “I’m still an amateur, but it keeps me off the streets.”
A couple of years ago, he decided to create a sculpture of someone he considers instrumental to the success of the School of Dentistry—Dean William W. Dodge, D.D.S., whom Dr. Duncan has known for 40 years.
“I showed him some of the sculptures I’ve done of others, and I said, ‘I want to do one of you,’ ” Dr. Duncan said. He says Dr. Dodge’s modesty made him hesitant to agree. But Dr. Duncan insisted he wanted to donate it to the university to honor Dr. Dodge’s dedication to the dental school. The dean finally agreed, and Dr. Duncan started the work a couple of years ago.
“I’m very, very, very slow,” said Dr. Duncan, who presented the finished bust to Dean Dodge last December. “A good artist can do one of these in a couple days, but it takes me a couple months.”
Dr. Duncan never expected to be a dentist, much less a sculptor. He originally planned to be a college professor, but his admiration of his older brother drew him in a different direction.
“He was 12 years older, and he flew in World War II,” he said. “He did combat missions, he was shot down, and he was a prisoner of war. He was my hero.”
So when Dr. Duncan had the chance to become a U.S. Navy pilot, he went from earning his bachelor’s in biology straight into 16 weeks of ground training. During his four years flying planes for the Navy, he spent time with dentists aboard an aircraft carrier.
“I spent a lot of time in the dental office with them, and I fell in love with what they did,” he said. “I decided this is what I wanted to do.”
With the Korean War over and the Navy reducing the number of pilots, Dr. Duncan volunteered to leave so he could pursue a dental degree. After a couple of years in general practice, he realized what he really loved was oral and maxillofacial surgery, which he practiced until he retired in 2008 and then came to teach at the university.
“There’s something about being around young people who are so eager to learn,” said Dr. Duncan, who isn’t quite ready to retire from teaching. “That feeling of eagerness of the young mind and thinking I can contribute something to that. As long as I can mentally keep up with it, it’s hard to get away from it.”