Art in the Time of Crisis
Columbia Nursing Community Uses Art to Address the Pandemic and Racial Injustice
The two-minute video opens to the haunting strains of “Amazing Grace,” as an almost-empty subway car pulls out of New York City’s Lincoln Center station. That the train and the performance hall plaza are nearly deserted is no surprise, given the COVID-19 pandemic. What is surprising is the appearance of scrubs-clad Erika Chen, MS ’16, as the Center’s featured soloist, performing two starkly contrasting verses of the 18th-century hymn. Her beautiful rendition captures both the melancholy of a city in the grip of a plague and the hope of better days to come.
The video was among dozens of entries in “Art in the Time of Crisis,” a Columbia Nursing initiative that invited students, faculty, administrators, staff, and alumni to submit narrative writing, poetry, painting, photography, music, or dance to portray their feelings about the dual crises that have roiled the country during the past year: the pandemic and the racial justice reckoning. The initiative culminated this spring in a virtual presentation and video showcasing 20 selected pieces; ultimately, they will become an online exhibition at Columbia University’s Wallach Gallery.
Art as an Emotional Outlet
Art is a well-known outlet for human emotion. If ever there was a time when nurses and other health-care workers needed such an outlet, it has been since the onset of the pandemic (which has decimated millions of lives and taken a disproportionate toll on African Americans and other people of color, who commonly lack access to care) and the killing of George Floyd (which highlighted systemic racism in America).
Art in the Time of Crisis” to provide their peers and colleagues with a way to deal with the trauma, stress, and other emotions related to the pandemic and their anguish over racial injustice. “We’ve been besieged from all sides,” says Inez, who, like Bush, is a second- semester student in Columbia Nursing’s doctoral program in psychiatric mental health. “This endeavor was an outlet for students, faculty, and staff to safely comment on the pandemic, as well as political events that they didn’t feel permitted to speak about in other areas of their lives.”Recognizing this need, DNP students Janine Inez, MS ’20, and Alden Bush, MS ’20, co-founded “
According to Jeanne Churchill, an assistant professor of nursing and an advisor to the project, evidence-based research suggests that engaging in artistic expression can promote health-care workers’ well-being, especially as they process their feelings about death and dying. Churchill, who assigns narratives to help her students reflect on their clinical experiences, noticed the particular toll that the health and racial crises were taking on students. Those working on the front lines as paid nurse technicians, even though they had yet to finish their clinical education, “saw more trauma and death in eight months than I’ve seen in 40-plus years,” she says. “The initiative is giving students and all health-care providers the ability to process the crises happening in this country and the world. It is helping them to work through their emotions, which will help them to become better providers in the long run.”
The project also offered a safe platform from which students could advocate for racial justice, Churchill adds. “Ever since the killing of George Floyd, Columbia Nursing students have become very involved in working to raise awareness of racial injustices that go beyond issues of health care. They want more information. They want more dialogue. They want to be involved.”
A Project is Born
Inez and Bush began by researching how creating art can help nurses and other health-care workers become better providers. They then crafted a proposal, which they presented to Dean Lorraine Frazier, PhD; Vice Dean Judy Honig, EdD ’77, DNP ’05; and Churchill, who unanimously gave them the green light to begin collecting art. “Just as students were starting to wrestle with the weight of everything that was taking place, we got the go-ahead to develop the project,” Inez recounts.
A lifelong writer and poet, Inez knows all about the healing properties of creating art. “When I am overwhelmed with emotion, I make art. It’s how I’m able to digest it,” she says. For example, to come to grips with her feelings about mortality—her patients’ as well as her own—she wrote a poem titled “War Offering”:
I do not think you have to be a soldier to go to war.
I think a war is taking place in our neighborhoods, our hospitals, our homes.
Insidious terminologies snake their way like vines into our mouths and our minds—“frontlines,” “body count,” “hero.”
We are all in the ethos of a soldier in the trenches but the enemy is invisible
And in truth could reside in any of one of our teammates, our loved ones, ourselves.
“Ever since COVID-19 happened, death has been at the forefront of my mind,” Inez says. “This initiative was born out of my reckoning with my own mortality and what it means to live a meaningful life.” At the same time, it stemmed from her overwhelming empathy for peers working on the front lines. (Severe asthma prevented her from joining them.) “We had barely any clinical experience or training about postmortem care,” she explains. “My friends told heartbreaking stories about losing patients and not knowing if it was because of their inexperience. They were all traumatized.”
Writing and developing the initiative also gave Inez valuable perspective on patients’ experiences. “When we do art, we put ourselves in patients’ shoes. We think about what it means to be sick, to be taken care of, and to take care of someone. It makes us better providers.”
Tapping into Hidden Emotions
For Bush, who worked as a visitor screener and translator during the pandemic’s early days, writing poetry facilitated the release of emotions that he says health-care workers rarely reveal. “I had nights when I couldn’t sleep, when I’d see something on Facebook and break down crying. I was bottling up raw emotion, and my body was having a physical reaction.” He says he experienced emotional liberation in writing “21 Days,” a poem that depicts a beloved father on a ventilator, dreaming that his late wife Consuelo is with him and hearing the voice of his daughter, even though he is dying in a hospital ICU without them:
The patriarch continues to fight for his life
The tug and pull of life and death
He dreams of Ecuador
Shifting through fields of pink roses
He takes a deep breath and sees his wife
Consuelo is laying down watching the skies
The nurse wipes his eyes and adjusts the ventilator settings
Muffled voices and writing on glass walls
He turns around as the sunlight blinds him
Squinting for a moment he glances
“Are you calling me, Daughter?”
“Eres tu mi chiquita?”
“Is that you my little one?”
“Death is a topic that can easily become taboo, but death and the process of dying are powerful teachers,” says Bush, who plans to care for underrepresented populations once he graduates. “Being able to navigate them makes you more capable of being with patients and families in their hardest times.”
In addition to giving students and nurses the opportunity to explore and express their feelings about death and dying, the initiative allowed them to take deeper emotional dives into their feelings about the risks they assume when treating COVID-19 patients, as well as about their commitment to racial justice, says Rita Charon, MD, PhD, a professor of medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Also the founder and executive director of Columbia’s Division of Narrative Medicine and the curator of the exhibition, she adds that “neither of these feelings is in primary colors in ordinary nursing during ordinary times. The installation is critical now because it helps us capture feelings that may be less visible in ‘normal’ times.”
Among these less visible feelings is a “crisis of conscience” that Charon says all providers experience at some point. “We all have moments of fear, and sometimes we act on them,” she says, referring to students or clinicians who didn’t work on the front lines for fear of infecting their children or elderly parents, among other reasons. “We know what the right thing to do is, and we’re prevented either because of personal circumstances or because we don’t have the courage,” she continues. Creating art gives nurses and other providers the critical distance they need to ask themselves, without self-recrimination: “Was I there fully? Did I do enough?”
“This initiative,” adds Charon, “has helped nurses take pride in their professional identity, put in perspective what more they could have done, and take stock of their shortcomings without feeling like they’ve failed.”
Moreover, it has helped the school community give voice to feelings about racial injustice, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and heightened awareness of diversity and tolerance. In a photograph by Susan Evans, BS ’65, for example, three African American Brad dolls stand beneath the letters “B,” “L,” and “M.” And in “Fractured Nation,” by Denise (Buckawick) Kooperman, BS ’70 , a rainbow of colors brings to life the textures in a simple piece of fabric.
Bush, who is Latino, says his heritage inspired him to speak out about racial and cultural inequities in health and health care. “Seeing the direct effects of COVID-19 on communities of color, compounded by calls for racial justice, has inspired me to advocate more, fight more, and lift my voice more in defense of my patients and all communities of color.”
Themes Ranging from Peril to Hope
The exhibition encompasses an array of themes ranging from peril and foreboding, to witnessing death, to activism and racial justice, and, ultimately, to hope. Charon emphasizes that the works have been “mind fully ordered,” so that viewers can emerge feeling hopeful. “We’re inviting people to share with us a very dark time. We bring them through the rough stuff, but we owe it to our audience to bring them out at the end not in a state of despair but of pride and hope, to show them that our nurses have faced these challenges so courageously.”
Many of the featured pieces celebrate nurses’ and other providers’ bravery and power. Indeed, running throughout the exhibition is the message that while the fight against the pandemic and racial injustice continues, hope and healing are on the horizon.
Such hope emanates from a photograph by MDE-DNP student Joseph Herman, which shows a building half in shadow and half in sunlight, and from a painting by Dorothy Simpson Dorion, BS ’57, which shows one side of Fifth Avenue in darkness and the other in light.
Hope and healing also radiate from Churchill’s photograph “Sunset with Benches,” which depicts a stretch of New Jersey shore where people sit to watch the sunset. “That’s my happy place,” Churchill says. “The sun sets every day, and then it rises, so we looked at the sunset as a sign of hope. It gave comfort and peace to us every night.”
Meggan Jo Kent, MS ’16, pursued the themes of hope and healing in a short narrative about the steadfastness of nature. She wrote:
The world is still turning. The waves are still crashing on the shore. Pollution has significantly decreased and dissipated. Maybe us humans need to be more conscious on the impact we have on our planet. We can learn so many good lessons from this. I find hope in the sunshine. I hope you do too.
Creating a Legacy
The power of “Art in the Time of Crisis” extends beyond the works themselves to the legacy they will leave for the school: a tribute to the entire community and the critical role it has played in caring for affected New Yorkers and their families. “What this initiative brings to the surface is that taking care of patients is what matters most,” Churchill says. “That is why our students are becoming nurses. It is why they are here.”
Bush says that participating in the initiative reinforced the bonds among the various segments of the Columbia Nursing community. “Whether we’re alumni, faculty, staff, or students, we have all been going through these crises together, sharing hope, sharing darkness, and now leaving a legacy to commemorate this period of time.” Adds Inez, “I hope that people will see their own journey and themselves in these pieces. I hope that they’ll feel heard, and that this will spark introspection and help them process what has happened to them.”
View a video of the Art in the Time of Crisis collection:
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Columbia Nursing Magazine.