Healthcare workers are turning to art to cope. Here are some of their projects

Dr. G. Sofia Nelson is pictured dancing with a hoop.
Dr. G. Sofia Nelson, a pulmonologist who sees dance as a way to keep balance in her life, uses dance hoops in her Newbury Park backyard.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

“COVID Fatigue” is how surgeon Dr. Frank Candela titled his painting — a weary blue face enveloped in a cloud of black. During the winter COVID-19 surge in L.A., Candela sent the painting to Times health reporter Soumya Karlamangla, who tweeted: “When I asked him what inspired the image, he said, ‘my colleagues faces.’”

As the pandemic stretches toward the one-year mark, with about half a million deaths in the U.S. alone, healthcare workers are increasingly burned out and traumatized.

For some, staying creative is a form of escape, a way to cope with stress or a strategy for sharing a message of hope with their community. The Times spoke to five healthcare workers — who are also a painter, a choreographer, a photographer or an illustrator — to learn more about how the pandemic has affected their artistry.


C. Michael Gibson: interventional cardiologist, researcher, educator, painter

In Dr. C. Michael Gibson’s oil painting “The Last Shift,” a line of dark, floating silhouettes drifts off into a hazy light. Gibson shared the painting, which was auctioned for $25,000 to support healthcare workers, on Twitter last March, adding: “Welcome home to all of our courageous #CoronaHeroes who made the ultimate sacrifice.”

"The Last Shift," a painting by Dr. C. Michael Gibson of figures moving toward a hazy light.
A painting by Dr. C. Michael Gibson titled “The Last Shift.”
(Dr. C. Michael Gibson)

The isolation of the pandemic has meant more time to look inward. For Gibson, “The Last Shift” is a meditation on spirituality and vulnerability, “not afraid to talk about it, knowing that so many other people were probably facing the same concerns about where’s everyone going after this. Are they going to be OK? All those issues we all struggle with.”

"Tunnel of COVID," a painting with swirls of gray, black, red and orange, by Dr. Michael Gibson.
Dr. C. Michael Gibson’s “Tunnel of COVID.”
(Dr. C. Michael Gibson)

As a practicing physician, Gibson spends one day each week doing procedures, opening up people’s arteries. It’s a visual job, he said. “You’re looking at a screen and finding these blockages and making them better, so we’re kind of visual athletes. And being a painter has always made me a better visual athlete.”

In addition to his work as a cardiologist, researcher and educator, he paints most nights and weekends at his studio in Natick, Mass. Art is his way to communicate nonverbally and “allow a lot of all those feelings, emotions and right sided things that are all pent up in there to come out.”

During the pandemic, Gibson has created about 10 paintings. About half are directly related to the pandemic. He was particularly inspired by a nurse in a Dove commercial, struck by her exhaustion and the marks the mask left on her face. He said it captured “not just the outward appearance but the inward appearance of so many healthcare workers who’ve been traumatized by the violence.”

Dr. C. Michael Gibson, dressed in scrubs, sits in a book-lined office.
Dr. C. Michael Gibson, an interventional cardiologist, researcher educator and painter.
(Dr. C. Michael Gibson)

Other paintings have been more abstract, but still the pandemic showed up in subtle ways — like the increased use of grays, red and blues. “They’re not very happy paintings,” he said.

A recent ray of light: He helped to administer vaccines one weekend in Central Falls, R.I. “It reminded me why I was a doctor. It was a really good experience.”


G. Sofia Nelson: pulmonologist and choreographer

As a physician who specializes in the respiratory system, Dr. G. Sofia Nelson splits her time between clinic and hospital settings in Oxnard and Camarillo. When making hospital rounds before the pandemic, Nelson typically saw about 15 patients each day. But during the recent COVID-19 surge in Southern California, Nelson saw between 50 and 60 patients every day.

Nelson, 33, would often return home from work, not because she had treated every patient, but because she was exhausted. There was also triaging, she said, deciding which patients could benefit from continued treatment.

Flow arts, a form of dance that involves prop manipulation, such as hoops, or juggling, was one way Nelson coped with the stress.

A screenshot of "World Stool Still Group Piece" by the Lumia Dance Company run by Dr. G. Sofia Nelson.
A screenshot of “World Stool Still Group Piece” by the Lumia Dance Company run by Dr. G. Sofia Nelson.
(Lumia Dance Company)

“It’s been long days, but it’s very powerful having something to come home to, for which I can pretty much shut off my brain. I can just really focus on my body,” Nelson said. “The more I’m working my mind and the more I’m thinking, the harder my job becomes, the more I actually have to dance to maintain that balance.”

She’s also the director of Lumia Dance Company, which she launched in 2019 as a way to give back to the arts community. In December the company premiered its debut show virtually, “Light Through Darkness,” featuring dance, aerial arts and fire spinning — all filmed in an empty North Hollywood theater.

Nelson choreographed three dances in the show over several months, typically rehearsing on Zoom during evenings and weekends. One dance was a post-apocalyptic hoop piece about the pandemic experience, another was inspired by what she described as the government’s increased militarization and fascism, and a duet explored the pitfalls of social media.

Now that the show is over, Nelson mainly dances at home as a form of movement meditation, reaching the same type of head space many surgeons use in their practice, she said. “It’s really important that we create a culture where physicians are encouraged to have creative outlets like this. We create a society in which not just physicians, but anybody, really has that kind of opportunity.”

VIDEO | 02:59
“Feeling Good Solo”

“Feeling Good Solo” is performed by Dr. Sofia Nelson, a Pulmonologist and choreographer. As a physician she specializes in the respiratory system; however, she splits her time running Lumia Dance Company, which she launched in 2019.


Chip Thomas: family physician and photographer

A GIF features Dr. Chip Thomas' large-scale photography presented on buildings and billboards.
Dr. Chip Thomas’ photography presented on buildings and billboards throughout the Navajo Nation, where he has worked for 33 years.
(Dr. Chip Thomas; Nilaya Sabins; Craig Smith)

For the last 33 years, Dr. Chip Thomas has worked on the Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the U.S., spanning parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, and also among the hardest hit by COVID-19. As a family practice physician, Thomas, 63, has treated generations of families in the area. Also a street photographer who goes by “jetsonorama,” Thomas says art and medicine go hand in hand.

“When I see people in the clinic, I’m attempting to create an environment of wellness within the individual. And when I am putting art up in the community, [I’m] reflecting the beauty of the community back to people.”

In 2009, Thomas began creating public installations of his photography, using spaces throughout the Navajo Nation as a way to share messages. Some of Thomas’ prior work focused on public health awareness, including commentary on people’s food choices.

Photographer and family physician Dr. Chip Thomas.
(Scott Sady)

During the pandemic, he created large-scale public service announcements posted on abandoned buildings and billboards encouraging residents to wear a mask and stay positive despite the tough times.

Last November, Thomas published a 115-page multimedia zine called “Pandemic Chronicles, Volume 1,” inviting visual artists and poets to respond to how the pandemic disproportionately affected their communities. Thomas shot much of the photography in the zine during weekends and his time off work.

One image, of an older woman and child in a masked embrace, is a family Thomas has worked with since 1987.

The young girl in the photo is about 9. “I started photographing her when she was 6 months old,” Thomas said. “One of the things I love about that image, other than the fact that they’re both wearing masks, is they’re touching. ... With social distancing and the emphasis on mitigation measures, a lot of people don’t have an opportunity to touch and embrace like that.”

Thomas was recently invited to create a project funded by the United Nations, working with activists to create an art-based response on the Navajo Nation to the mental health challenges caused by the pandemic. The project’s title, “Pandemic as Portal,” is based on an essay of the same name by Indian author Arundhati Roy.


Tessa Moeller: nurse and painter

A grid of paintings by nurse Tessa Moeller.
Tessa Moeller’s paintings are a part of a COVID-19 series featuring co-workers and others central to her work.
(Tessa Moeller)

Working as a nurse in a Miami trauma burn unit during the early days of the pandemic, when personal protective equipment ran low and there were many unknowns about COVID-19, was terrifying for Tessa Moeller.

Painting was an outlet to handle the high stress of the hospital, where she typically worked three days a week. “Sometimes I would come home, especially after a particularly scary day, and I would shower [and] go right to painting.”

When Moeller, 29, wasn’t working in the hospital, she juggled commissions and created art to express how she felt in the moment.

Last March, she began a COVID-19 series of paintings of nurses she knew, including one of a colleague who works in ICUs inserting catheters and another who became infected with COVID-19 while studying to become a nurse anesthesiologist.

A self-portrait of artist and nurse Tessa Moeller titled "Feeling Drained."
A self-portrait of artist and nurse Tessa Moeller titled “Feeling Drained.”
(Tessa Moeller)

Last May, Moeller moved to Portland, Ore., and began working in an oncology unit.

In the early days of the pandemic, the fear and confusion of last spring emerged through her use of bright reds and expressive brushstrokes. After moving, Moeller’s paintings became more detailed and controlled with “a lot of neurotic brushstrokes,” she said.

“That really sort of portrays how I was feeling, and I think a lot of nurses were feeling, from the frantic beginning to them just becoming very careful and controlled and anxious and making sure that everything is very — trying to exert control, when you don’t have control on your situation.”

Now based in Boston, Moeller has completed about 20 paintings in her COVID-19 series and is preparing to enter an MFA studio art program at Syracuse University.


Bing Li: medical resident and illustrator

Drawing was part of Dr. Bing Li’s life before she considered studying medicine. Last year, as a medical resident who works in a Brooklyn emergency room, Bing turned to art as a way of managing the grueling hours and pervading feeling of helplessness while New York was the epicenter of COVID-19.

Drawing landscape pieces and comics is a relaxing escape, a way to “feel like I have control and creating something that feels productive that’s also fun,” Li said.


A page from Dr. Bing Li's web comic series "Leaf Scar."
(Dr. Bing Li)

Maintaining an art practice is crucial for the 32-year-old. “We all see a lot of suffering that doesn’t necessarily have a meaning,” Li said. “But then the desire to make art is kind of like a desire to put a meaning into something.”

Although most of Li’s art practice doesn’t intersect with her work in healthcare, she made a comic last November based on a conversation between medical residents working through COVID-19. “I’d like to maybe eventually make more stuff that’s related to what we’re experiencing in healthcare, but it also feels like you’re kind of reliving the moment, and you may not feel necessarily ready for that.”

A self portrait of Dr. Bing Li, emergency medical resident and illustrator.
A self-portrait of Dr. Bing Li, emergency medical resident and illustrator.
(Dr. Bing Li)

Since the pandemic began, Li has made close to 30 pages of a lighthearted web comic described as being “about adventure, friendship and a weird squishy creature.”

Although the pandemic doesn’t show up directly in the work, experiences of the last year are often prioritized in the storytelling — themes of working collectively for the greater good, Li said, and “having a society that will care for each other, rather than a selfish society where people care just about their individual comforts.”

Are you a healthcare worker who has a creative outlet for coping during the pandemic? We’d love to share your work in an upcoming story. Submit it here.

Are you a healthcare worker who has a creative outlet to cope with the pandemic? We’d love to share your art in an upcoming story.

Feb. 22, 2021