Wednesday 24 July 2019

The art of seduction

Doctor and novelist Austin Duffy fell in love with his wife Naomi in New York and their creative ventures have since flourished together

Brushing up on love: Austin Duffy and Naomi Taitz Duffy first met while drawing a nude man at an art class in New York. Photo: David Conachy
Brushing up on love: Austin Duffy and Naomi Taitz Duffy first met while drawing a nude man at an art class in New York. Photo: David Conachy

Andrea Byrne

Most people probably wouldn't consider a life-painting class as a place to meet their future spouse, but it worked a charm for oncologist and author Austin Duffy from Dundalk and artist Naomi Taitz from New York. "I was painting this nude man in front of me, and spotted a guy who looked great in a t-shirt that was covered in paint," says Naomi. "I thought he was so cute and was keeping an eye on him."

It was 2007 and Austin was in New York as he had won a €200,000 pharma-funded award to enrol in a training programme at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. While he was working in medicine, he was also very interested in painting and creative writing and had enrolled in classes for both.

After a few false starts, Austin tried to subtly ask Naomi out, but American men are more direct so she didn't actually realise what was happening. "We were walking out of class, and he said something like, 'Those painting classes really make you thirsty,'" she laughs. "I was like, 'Yeah sure, see you later.'"

The penny only dropped for Naomi when Austin came back and tried the different tack of asking her directly if she fancied a coffee? She agreed as she thought he was charming, although she was seeing someone else at that point as is the American way. Once she and Austin had a few dates, that was it for her. "We went to an art gallery, and he told me in passing that he was doing a writing class and plays saxophone," says Naomi. "He was very humble about these things, which really struck me, as a lot of American guys would show off if they even did just one of them."

Naomi and Austin have very different backgrounds, as she is from the Bronx, and her younger sister Kara is an actress based in LA. Her parents are Marcy and Yaakov - her dad is from Israel - and they very much encouraged their daughters' artistic interests. Naomi and Kara both went to the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, which is the school from the 1980s film and TV series, Fame. "There was actually no dancing on top of the tables in the cafeteria, but it was a somewhat unusual school," she says. "I had several hours of art per day, before all our other classes."

After school, Naomi, 37, went to college in St. Louis where she majored in illustration. She worked in graphic design initially and then got a master's degree in teaching, and taught primary school for ten years.

Meanwhile, Austin, 41, who comes in the middle of Vincent and Pauline's three children was studying medicine at Trinity College. He fell in love with oncology when he worked at a Wellington hospital, and trained for four years at the Royal College of Physicians. He is now a highly-skilled consultant oncologist in Washington in the area of gastrointestinal cancer, with a further speciality in the pancreas and liver areas. He works in the area of experimental treatments on patients for whom standard treatments haven't worked. Austin says there is a huge excitement around immune-based treatments in cancer at the moment, where medicine stimulates the immune system to fight the cancer.

When he met Naomi, he was struck by how relaxed he felt in her company. "I thought she was gorgeous and very attractive, but what struck me most was how kind and decent she was," says Austin. "There was this space around us that was calm and I really fell for that. We still have the two paintings we did of the nude man. I got the full frontal view and Naomi got another angle."

So what did Naomi's Jewish family think of her nice Catholic Irish boy? "I was very close to my late grandmother Rose, and when she found out about Austin, she sent me a letter saying that Jewish people have been around thousands of years and how important our culture is," she says. "Growing up, it would have been preferred if I was with someone Jewish, but when they met him, every member of my family loved Austin and my grandmother absolutely loved him. She told me that he was my 'beshert', which means the person you're supposed to be with and soulmate. Austin always makes me laugh, although I'm a bit of a hypochondriac and I ask him all sort of questions to see what is wrong with me. He just tells me I'm fine, which drives me mad."

Austin and Naomi were married in New York five years ago, and have two children, Theo, 3, and ten-month-old Vera (pronounced Verra). As if life wasn't busy enough, Austin has just published his debut novel, This Living and Immortal Thing, which he began writing in 2008. The protagonist is an Irish oncologist searching for a scientific breakthrough in the lab of a New York hospital, while struggling with his failing marriage and growing alienation within the city's urban spaces. Austin's mastery of dialogue and humour has seen him being tipped as "one to watch" in literary circles. Closer to home, Naomi says she is very proud of him.

While the book was accepted for publication in 2014, Austin had developed his craft by writing short stories. He won RTE's Francis MacManus award for Orca in 2011, which was a great confidence boost. Naomi took a few years off and developed her career as an artist after Theo was born, with Austin's encouragement. She now sells her abstract art at shows and at solo and group exhibitions, and was recently the international artist in residence at The Mart in Rathmines.

"I don't know that I would have pursued my art if I was married to someone else," she says. "Austin always saw me as an artist because that was how we met. Our ideal future would be to spend time living in Ireland and time living in New York, as they are two beautiful places so we are lucky. We are both people who like the idea that the future is wide open."

This Living and Immortal Thing by Austin Duffy is out now (€17.99, Granta Books)

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