‘Hamilton’ cookie portraits? See how healthcare workers make art to cope with COVID-19

Artwork by Dr. Saira Malik Rahman depicting a physician with hands in prayer
Dr. Saira Malik Rahman, a pediatrician in Indiana, created an art series inspired by the pandemic and the country’s civil and human rights struggles.
(Saira Malik Rahman)
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We asked readers working in healthcare to send us art they’ve made in the pandemic. See their paintings, hyper-real dollhouse furniture, toast art, cookie decorating and more.

In a year of working through the pandemic, Dr. Hetvi Joshi, whose work is focused on caring for people in hospitals, said she has witnessed the immense agony, anxiety and pain experienced by patients. “The suffering we have seen with COVID-19 is [a] thousand times worse than any other illness, ever in my lifetime,” said Joshi, who lives in Tennessee.

To cope, Joshi painted hundreds of canvases in the past year, an important way to stay sane through the challenging times. “I don’t think I would have been able to carry on working without the escape to art,” she said.

The Times asked readers who work in healthcare to share the art they made during the pandemic, and we received more than 50 submissions. From painting to dance to writing to toast art, healthcare workers’ creativity reflects how they process working on the frontlines of the pandemic.

See their art here. Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

‘A Physician’s Pandemic Progression’

Paintings by Jacqueline Pflaum-Carlson included in a series titled "A physician's pandemic progression."
Paintings by Jacqueline Pflaum-Carlson in her “A Physician’s Pandemic Progression” series. “It’s cathartic to put brush to paper and watch the colors pour out of my head and into my hand,” she says.
(Jacqueline Pflaum-Carlson)

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When the pandemic hit, every aspect of my clinical practice was affected — there was no escape. I started painting so I could separate my work tragedy from home stressors. I needed to get the imagery and emotions out of my head before I could be present for my two young daughters and husband whose lives were also uprooted.

— Dr. Jacqueline Pflaum-Carlson, 39, Detroit

‘Imploding, 2020'

A painting of a woman in a mask as fire burns in the background
Urologist Aviva Weinberg’s painting was inspired by the 2020 California wildfires and the pandemic.
(Aviva Weinberg)

While I was often too busy to paint and draw during medical school and residency, I picked up my oil paints and brushes again during the COVID-19 pandemic. The solitude of this past year has reinvigorated my love of still life and portrait painting, and I have drawn and painted over 40 portraits this past year.

— Dr. Aviva Weinberg, 37, Redwood City, Calif.

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‘No Guts, No Glory’ (toast art)

A piece of toast shaped like the gastrointestinal tract.
A physician in Anaheim, Jessica So also creates food art.
(Jessica So)

Working as a physician was physically and emotionally draining through the pandemic, but I found myself pouring any ounce of remaining energy into my creative outlet — as a way to unwind, wrestle through the chaos going on in the world, keep my kids occupied at home, and share a bit of joy with others during a difficult time.

— Dr. Jessica So, 36, Anaheim

‘Ambiguous Loss’

An art work with a green eye at the center
This piece is about “processing many small, disenfranchised and unresolved losses from life in a pre-COVID world.”
(Sharon Itkoff Nacache)

I am a creative arts therapist working on the “invisible frontlines” as a mental health provider in private practice doing telehealth throughout the duration of the ongoing crisis. I often use an open studio process method in my tele-art therapy groups that involves my creating art alongside — or across the screen from — my clients to foster a sense of connection, community and shared art-making experience.

— Sharon Itkoff Nacache, 37, New York

‘Movement Release’

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Movement Release

Video by Jazmine Kwong, PA-C, a Board Certified Neurology and Aesthetic Physician Assistant in Los Angeles. “There was no clear choreography or direction with my movements. I allowed my body to dictate the next sequence of flow and went from there. Inspired by an overwhelming and stressful day at work, I wanted to lubricate my joints and encourage my blood to circulate,” said Kwong.

It’s a huge challenge to process every patient’s concern, symptom and, in addition, their specific experience with COVID. Working from home made it difficult to leave these things at work. Dance has given me space to release tension and to momentarily escape from the day’s heaviness.

— Jazmine Kwong, physician assistant, 29, Los Angeles

‘The Brave One’

A woman doctor in her medical gear
Dr. Nancy Prendergast’s depiction of a fellow doctor and artist and “supreme cookie artiste, in her daily gear for the frontlines.”
(Nancy Prendergast)

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Art is my meditation, a calming and steadying influence and escape for me in these overly stressful times. This is my depiction of my friend Dr. Priscilla Sarmiento-Gupana, a fellow artist and supreme cookie artiste, in her daily gear for the frontlines.

— Dr. Nancy Prendergast, 59, Westfield, N.J.

‘Masks WORK! (But Only If You Wear Them Correctly)’

Cookies shaped like the Schuyler sisters, from the musical "Hamilton," in masks
“A silly homage to my love for ‘Hamilton’ and public health. When masks were newer to the general population, there were a ton of people wearing them incorrectly, so I made this cookie to show people how masks are meant to be worn and to reiterate the importance of caring for one another.”
(Priscilla Sarmiento-Gupana)

Baking, specifically sugar cookie decorating, has been my therapy for many years, but it has been extra helpful during this pandemic as a means of stress relief, self-expression, and as a means to spread joy and hope as well as promote important public health messages.

— Dr. Priscilla Sarmiento-Gupana, 38, Batavia, Ill.

Untitled

A needlework piece showing a skeletal hand with flowers growing out of it
This interpretation of rheumatoid arthritis was sewn on an old bedsheet, because of the lack of access to fabric during lockdown.
(Aimee Rondel)

I sew diseases as I see them and how they’re described to me by patients. It can be very absorbing and I can focus solely on where the next stitch goes. Becomes easier to block out the anxiety.

— Dr. Aimee Rondel, 37, New Zealand

‘Healer’

When the coronavirus pandemic began, art remained as vital to me as breathing. My preferred media are paint and collage but because of its portability, I have turned to digital art on my tablet over the past year. With my stylus, I was able to create art in between my clinical duties and created a series not only on the pandemic but on our country’s ongoing civil and human rights struggles.

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— Dr. Saira Malik Rahman, 43, South Bend, Ind.

‘Purple Sea’

A piece by Gina Vernace
(Gina Vernace)

Art lets you turn off your left brain and focus on something else. As a physician during a pandemic, this destruction takes a toll on one’s wellbeing and art is an outlet. Physician burnout is real and it’s very imperative to have a safe place to escape from all the turmoil. And art is exactly that.

— Dr. Gina Vernace, 34, Edwardsville, IL

Spanish colonial dollhouse

Photos of rooms from a dollhouse
The Spanish colonial-style dollhouse is made completely from foam board. The beds are made from plumbing tubing and the chandelier is made from cake pop sticks.
(Kwandaa Roberts)

I make dollhouses and tiny furnishings as a hobby. Not only are they an outlet for my design obsession, but creating these tiny, perfect worlds has been so healing during this pandemic which took my father’s life. Working with my hands has provided me with both distraction and joy during these solitary times.

— Dr. Kwandaa Roberts, 48, Philadelphia

‘Coverse Collision’

An abstract painting of circles
“I held a blank canvas and some new oil pigments and I was inclined to make circles, just circles. ... Life happens in circles and cycles and they are intertwined and interconnected.”
(Leslie-Ann Williams)

I grew up not separating my logic from my creativity and having an amazing marriage of the two. Then life happens and medicine happens and forces a crowding out of the creative. But I have resisted. During this pandemic, I took a sabbatical to delve into my creative side. I thought that I was going to write and work on my one-woman show but I went to Michael’s and got some canvas and paint and the rest is “herstory.”

— Dr. Leslie-Ann Williams, 50, Alexandria, Va.

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‘Bound, vulnerable and silenced’

Painting of a masked medical worker bound in a stethescope
This work “was painted a little less than a year ago. My colleagues were being told not to speak out about the lack of appropriate PPE. It was both frustrating and frightening.”
(Esther Smith)

Art is both an outlet for sadness and an escape from monotony. We have made a lot of sacrifices as a state to keep our COVID numbers low. When I’m asked how the pandemic has changed my practice, I have to say it’s how many people cry in my office each day.

— Dr. Esther Smith, 45, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

‘Evolutionary Beauty Will Prevail’

Colorful mandala
Nurse Kathy Iwanowski creates a mandala every morning.
(Kathy Iwanowski)

I do a mandala every day as soon as I wake up. It helps me put things into perspective, i.e. the pandemic is not my whole world, just a part of it. It has helped me work through the stress of high call volumes, rapidly changing processes in our organization, and patient and co-workers’ fears where I work as a telephone triage nurse.

— Kathy Iwanowski, 65, Aurora, Colo.

Gowns inspired by 18th to early 20th century paintings

Three female models wear gowns inspired by 18th century portraits in photographs by Christina Millar.
Photographs by Christine Millar, inspired by 18th century portraits in museums.
(Christine Millar)

[Sewing gowns] has helped me take my mind off of a long day at work; and despite all the high stress, and all the sadness I see every day, there is something cathartic about coming home and channeling all that into art. It’s something that is absolutely necessary for my own sanity.

— Dr. Christine Millar, 34, Belleville, Ill.

‘I Miss You’

A poem from a book of poetry released this year by Dr. Ankur Kalra.
A poem from “Ibadah,” a book of poetry released this year by Dr. Ankur Kalra.
(Ankur Kalra)

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In the summer of 2020, I led research at the Cleveland Clinic that showed that there is an uptick in the cases of broken heart syndrome during the coronavirus disease pandemic. I used patient and personal experiences to write/express it in poetry form.

— Dr. Ankur Kalra, 38, Shaker Heights, Ohio

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