The Art of the Pandemic
By Nicole Wolverton
Tinkering around in the photography darkroom was Jay Roth’s refuge in high school—a quiet, dark place to regroup and relax. As an adult with a career as a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, fine art photography and darkroom work continue to be a unique form of self-care for him, particularly during the last year as COVID-19 infections spread.
Roth, a Certified Registered Nurse Practitioner and alum of Penn Nursing’s Bachelor’s and Master’s programs, was recognized in October 2020 as an Everyday Genius by Da Vinci Art Alliance, located in South Philadelphia. The virtual exhibit, Everyday Genius, was featured as part of the Da Vinci Fest Live event; it honors leaders and trailblazers that are advancing their fields and doing good work in the community. In Roth’s case, it was his photography a well as his work a nurse practitioner that prompted Philadelphia CollageWorks to nominate him for the honor. Roth’s photography reflects not only his experience as a mental health care professional during a time of extreme anxiety and collective trauma, but also his deep desire to bring about change in the health care industry that leads to more equitable access to preventative care. More importantly, though, his photography helps him process his own emotions.
Roth, who regularly rotates between five to six nursing homes to provide care, has—like many nurses—weathered incredible stress over the course of the pandemic. Two major waves of coronavirus infection swept through the facilities at which he works. In one, up to 90 percent of patients tested positive for COVID-19, and he estimates that 20 to 30 percent of those infected died.
“At the beginning of the pandemic,” Roth says, “there was a lot of anxiety, and everyone was testing positive and getting sick. It happened very quickly. So many of the nursing staff were talking about how they’d never seen anything this contagious before, but they did a great job of powering through. Your skills take over at a certain point. But the severity of the situation takes a toll. You don’t know if you’re going to be able to prevent an infection from coming home to your family or to your daughters. It’s scary.”
He continues, “You do your best given the situation, given the resources that you have, given the PPE you have. It’s still hard—a lot of residents are still quarantined in their rooms even now, a lot of patients are really frustrated about not being able to see their families. A lot of what I’m doing is saying ‘I’m sorry, I wish things didn’t have to be this way.’ It’s important for patients to know that someone sees them, understands their isolation—sees their grief and their feelings of abandonment. Without having that understanding, people can feel more much isolated. I’m managing patients with bipolar disorder, clinical depression, and anxiety disorders, too, but most of what I’ve been doing is helping people feel seen in their isolation. It’s often different for nurses, though—there’s not a lot of talk about the bigger emotional drain. And hearing people call you a hero without addressing what nurses need to deal with their mental health and exhaustion issues is challenging. I hope in some way that the photography work that I do articulates that on some level. It’s hard.” He laughs. “Emotionally draining.”
Roth’s most recent projects, On Healthcare and Abandonment and Pandemic Blues, also reflect his frustrations about inequities in the health care system—and the ways in which the health care system often abandons people who cannot afford the care they need to live their healthiest lives. “I don’t think I understood it when I was just starting out as a nurse,” Roth says. “A lot of times it’s easy for young nurses and other health care professionals to—when you work on certain floors and see a patient that’s very sick or very contagious—consider that person’s condition a result of self-neglect. But it often happens within a construct of poverty or a lack of access to hospitals or health care. The end stage issues we often see in patients could have been prevented by more access to preventative health care and mental health care. Non-compliance is a problem sometimes, of course, but the system could be better. My art helps me process the moral distress I feel from working within these systems.”
Getting ahead of those ethical challenges is critical—and for Roth, having a part in shining a light on the challenges is important, too. He says, “That moral distress is a lot of what I’m trying to address in my artwork—taking into account the federal response to COVID-19, too. I want my photography to speak to bigger problems that result from lack of access, lack of action—and I hope my work at its best reflects some of that.”
Being chosen as an Everyday Genius has given Roth a public platform that, he hopes, will impact attitudes outside the health care community. He says, “Having my work seen gives me a sense that people connect with it. Maybe people will read my artist’s statement and see my art and then be motivated to wear masks more often. They’ll realize how contagious the virus is, how many people have been dying in long-term care facilities. I would hope people see the challenges of working in this environment and are inspired to be more active in promoting positive change in our health care systems—even using their vote to vote for legislators who support single payer insurance options. Connecting people to the reality that nurses face every day is an important aspect of my work.”
Even beyond Roth’s more recent pandemic-focused work, his photography has been gaining a following in art circles. Early last year his photographs were included as part of the RAW 2020 juried exhibition at Noyes Museum of Art in Atlantic City, New Jersey, as well as the 215 | 610 CONTEMPORARY juried exhibition at Delaware County Community College. Previous exhibitions include showings at Da Vinci Art Alliance, Perkins Center for the Arts, Woodmere Art Museum, and elsewhere. His work has explored national identity, commercial consumption, and mental health and trauma—and he is drawn to images that reflect how the meaning of objects change over time.
Despite Roth’s accomplishments as an artist and a nurse, he had no intention of pursuing either. A career aptitude test in the fifth grade suggested that he should become either a doctor or a farmer. In high school he learned to develop film in a darkroom—but just for fun. It wasn’t until college that he decided to pursue nursing: he’d been considering humanitarian relief work after graduating from University of California at Berkeley with a BA in Development Studies, and realized nursing would be a good skill to have in the field.
“I did a bit of painting while I was living in Berkeley,” Roth says. “I’d been itching to get back into doing some kind of art, but I dropped the idea because I was doing so much with school— graduating, coming home to the Philadelphia area, starting my nursing career, then taking classes toward my Master’s. Once I got my Master’s from Penn Nursing and settled into a routine, that itch came back. I took a few darkroom classes at Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia and really had a lot of fun. I started submitting it around here and there, and I got some good feedback. There’s something there with my photography work, and I want to see how far I can take it.”
As Roth’s work continues to evolve, so, too, does the attention paid to it in the arts community. He was recently chosen for the second year running to participate in the 215 | 610 CONTEMPORARY juried exhibition and was named as a contender for the Feature Shoot Emerging Photography Award.