Painting During a Pandemic

“Camellia” appears in the Spring 2021 issue of Ad Libitum, Einstein’s art and literary magazine.

Painting During a Pandemic

By Ginger Skinner

For Jessica Zhang, being in medical school during the COVID-19 pandemic has meant adapting to remote learning and spending less time with classmates. But she has also gained something in short supply during a student’s first two years—the chance to indulge her passion for painting.

“This has been a time of creative expression for so many people,” says the New Jersey native and member of the Class of 2023. “It has been one of the positive sides of the pandemic.”

For Ms. Zhang, creating art has always been a source of comfort and connection. “Painting helps clear my head,” she says. “I stop doing everything else and just paint for a while. In that sense, I find it very grounding.”

Creating art during lockdown and closures has come with its own set of unique challenges. And her first painting during this time almost didn’t come together. “I had run out of supplies,” she says. “I was down to just four paint colors. Surprisingly, those four colors ended up working well together.” (See “Blues,” below.)


Inspired by Activism

Ms. Zhang has loved drawing ever since she could hold a crayon. “My parents saw my little doodles and signed me up for art class,” she says. By first grade, she was taking weekly instruction alongside 17- and 18-year-olds.

“I was never very good at soccer,” she jokes. “Throughout the years, painting was the one thing for me that stuck.” These days, Ms. Zhang prefers painting people to objects and says she has been inspired by the activism she has seen on social media platforms. “Over the last year, I’ve been drawn to the art I’ve seen on Instagram related to the Black Lives Matter movement—paintings, murals, and even poetry.”

Ms. Zhang likes impressionism and the works of French painter Jerome Lagarrigue and American painter Michael Carson. She has dabbled in various mediums—watercolor, pencil, graphite, oil, and pastels—but favors acrylics and a technique she describes as free and relaxed. “I prefer art that’s not perfectly blended and realistic,” she says. “That may be why I tend to paint with messy and wide brushstrokes and a lot of color.”

Cultural Competence

During high school, Ms. Zhang thought about going to art school and even won acceptance to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design. But she chose a career in medicine because of a desire to help others and her growing interest in health policy.

While researching medical schools, Ms. Zhang says, she looked for a curriculum that addressed cultural competence—being willing to recognize, accept, and interact with people whose cultures and belief systems differ from your own. Einstein offered what she was looking for.

“One of the things that matters most to me is not only training to become a physician, but also being part of the broader discussion of how we can address equity issues within healthcare,” says Ms. Zhang, who has been researching this issue for the past couple of years. As a health fellow at the New York Academy of Medicine in 2020, she worked on a study looking at the differences in how patients and physicians perceive one another. “At Einstein, it’s becoming the norm for students to learn about health equity, implicit bias [see “Prevailing Over Prejudice”], and microaggressions,” she says.

She also credits geography with bringing those issues front and center: “Einstein is located in the Bronx, so students are surrounded by very diverse communities here,” she says.

Now immersed in her third-year rotations, she tries to fit in time for painting, if only for a stress-relieving break. “If you don’t make time for things you enjoy doing, it can be easy to not do them,” she says. “More than ever, and partly thanks to the last year, painting feels essential to my well-being, and I’m grateful for it.”

"Front Stoop"

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