‘Soleful Connections’ highlights creative art therapy’s impact on countering life stress

DeAndre Jordan of the Denver Nuggets headlines an event about much more than decorating shoes.
March 13, 2024
From left, Denver Nuggets center DeAndre Jordan, Altitude TV’s Katy Winge, Dr. Marc Moss, and Sicario Studios founder Marcus Jimenez at UCHealth’s “Soleful Connections” event on Feb. 27, where they talked about the benefits of creative art therapy. UCHealth Photos by Jeff Kosloski.
From left, Denver Nuggets center DeAndre Jordan, Altitude TV’s Katy Winge, Dr. Marc Moss, and Sicario Studios founder Marcus Jimenez at UCHealth’s “Soleful Connections” event on Feb. 27. Photos by Jeff Kosloski, UCHealth.

“Soleful Connections,” presented by UCHealth in collaboration with the Denver Nuggets, focused on shoes – specifically, the decoration of 50 pairs of Nike Air Force 1 Low By You sneakers. But it was really about the work of University of Colorado School of Medicine pulmonary and critical-care medicine specialist Dr. Marc Moss and colleagues at the Colorado Resiliency Arts Lab, or CORAL. Their research has shown that art, and particularly art produced with therapeutic intent in a group setting, can be a potent force in countering life stress and work burnout among health care professionals who suffer disproportionately from it.

The Jordan in question was DeAndre Jordan, the Denver Nuggets’ center who gave the six-foot-two Moss the rare experience of feeling short. Jordan, in his 16th year in the league, stands nine inches taller. That stature, combined with prodigious athleticism and basketball skills, has led Jordan to past All-NBA honors. These days, his main role is backing up Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic, whose minutes are such that Jordan introduced himself as being “a courtside season ticket holder.”

More than 7,000 people entered a drawing to be among the 25 pairs of humans ultimately selected to share a pair of white Nikes and a range of paints and implements with which to decorate them. Marcus Jimenez, a former New York graffiti artist turned advertising creative wizard turned entrepreneur and founder of Denver’s Sicario Studios, led the shoe-augmentation effort. But first, Jimenez, Moss, and Jordan would talk about the intersection of art, health, and basketball with the guidance of Altitude TV Denver Nuggets analyst Katy Winge.

Creative art therapy to tackle health care provider burnout

Jordan described his profession as an “emotional roller coaster.”

“It’s 82 games, each with 48 minutes of highs and lows,” he said. “To have a pause button is something that’s very healthy – whether it’s journaling, art, whatever it is – Just to get you to relax and not think about those 48 minutes and trying to win another championship.”

Jimenez said art helped him through challenges of growing up in a violent section of Brooklyn in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Art was the one vehicle that helped me to channel things. I didn’t know that at the time. It was art that helped me through a lot of those traumas,” he said.

Moss noted art’s ability to focus the mind on the present.

UCHealth invited 50 participants selected randomly from more than 7,000 entrants to explore the nexus of art, basketball, health, and culture at “Soleful Connections.” The event demonstrated the benefits of creative art therapy to relieve stress.
UCHealth invited 50 participants selected randomly from more than 7,000 entrants to explore the nexus of art, basketball, health and culture at “Soleful Connections.”

“When you create art, it brings you back to living in the moment, and I think sometimes in stressful situations, you get a little bit too caught up in the past or trying to figure out the future,” Moss said.

He also noted what you might call the knock-on effects of artistic works, be they visual, the written word, music, or dance.

“What’s nice about art is it can be displayed or disseminated, and through that dissemination, you can expose your art to other people who might be dealing with some of the issues that you are and help them process the same conflicts you might be having,” Moss said. “Artists can help themselves and others through their work.”

A striking study on the impact of creative art therapy on stress and burnout

For two decades now, Moss has been at the forefront of studying workplace burnout among health care workers – particularly those in intensive care units, where Moss also works. His efforts took on more urgency during the coronavirus pandemic, and while the pandemic may be at least officially over, the forces culminating in health care workplace burnout remain.

Moss and colleagues wondered if creative arts therapy might help health care workers with signs of burnout process trauma and gain control over their psychological distress. This would happen through a structured program with trained therapists emphasizing not only artistic creation, but also community. The National Endowment for the Arts came through with a grant, and CORAL was born. The study was to start in March 2020.

Brogan Bugliese of Arvada freehands a red panel during “Soleful Connections” event that highlighted the positive impact that creative art therapy has.
Brogan Bugliese of Arvada freehands a red panel. His mom Susie, a hair stylist, accompanied him to “Soleful Connections.” “I think art is a huge outlet for sure,” she said. “Just letting your mind wander and letting your creative side come out.”

Pandemic both hurt and helped. Shutdowns delayed the study’s launch by six months, but the deluge of COVID-19 patients provided a pulse of burned-out caregivers. About 150 ended up participating in a 12-week program. They were divided among visual arts, writing, music, and dance cohorts, depending on the participant’s choice. Their results would be compared to those of a control group of caregivers who didn’t participate in the formal creative arts therapy program.

The results were striking. Those who received creative arts therapy – it didn’t matter which – saw a 28% drop in anxiety, a 36% drop in depression, a 26% drop in PTSD, and a 12% drop in emotional exhaustion. Some of these improvements persisted to greater or lesser degrees for 12 months after the therapy sessions ended.

A second clinical trial recently wrapped up, Moss says, this one focusing on nonpatient-facing health care workers such as administrators, educators, and researchers. Moss says their awaiting one-year data, but that the preliminary results look “very positive.” A study cohort is in progress at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central in Colorado Springs, and two more cohorts are slated for the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, he says. The creative outputs of earlier cohorts is impressive, available for viewing online and part of an exhibition currently at the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop and soon headed to the Colorado State Capitol.

It may not be the shoes, but it could be the art

After the discussion, Moss and son Dylan, 25, were among those decorating shoes at “Soleful Connections.” Someone asked Moss what was harder, setting up a research program or decorating a shoe.

“I think it’s harder right now,” he said, as he taped around a Nike swoosh as Jimenez had suggested, to provide sharper lines of color. “I’m struggling.”

Jenna Swedenberg of Denver, right, and Ellen Steiner of Auroa get to work on their Nikes during an event that highlighted the stress-relief power of creative art therapy.
Jenna Swedenberg of Denver, right, and Ellen Steiner of Auroa get to work on their Nikes during an event that highlighted the stress-relief power of creative art therapy.

But he was in the moment, immersed the task he and the others had about two hours to complete. So was Jeana Swedenberg of Denver. A researcher herself (though in the utilities industry), she had been fascinated by the discussion of the scientific quantification of art in stress reduction. She was not overconfident.

“I’ve never done this,” Swedenberg admitted, though she said she had checked out online videos on do’s and don’ts. “But this is really exciting, and DeAndre is my favorite player.”

Jordan, for his part, ended up with a new set of shoes that were Nike’s solely at their sole. Jimenez had stripped away the original Air Jordan 1 uppers and built what he dubbed a pair of “DJ Pythons,” size 18, to fit the guest of honor (technically, this is a “decon/recon”). They were 55 hours of artistic creation in the making, and sported vegetable-tanned leather, Italian full-grain leather, and actual python skin to match the fabric dragons from Asian-inspired streetwear brand Maharishi. Jimenez lined them with lambskin and added a custom insole.

Jordan and Jimenez with the one-of-a-kind, size-18 “DJ Pythons” by Jimenez’s Sicario Studios. They were together as part of an event to highlight the power of creative art therapy on mental health.
Jordan and Jimenez with the one-of-a-kind, size-18 “DJ Pythons” by Jimenez’s Sicario Studios.

“They’re not good for the court,” Jimenez cautioned.

“But they’re good for the tunnel,” Jordan said.

Moss says it was an honor that his team’s creative art therapy work was featured at “Soleful Connections.”

“One of CORAL’s goals is to raise awareness of the psychological distress in healthcare professionals, and this event [with the Denver Nuggets] helps inform members of the general public about this growing problem,” he said.

About the author

Todd Neff has written hundreds of stories for University of Colorado Hospital and UCHealth. He covered science and the environment for the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and has taught narrative nonfiction at the University of Colorado, where he was a Ted Scripps Fellowship recipient in Environmental Journalism. He is author of “A Beard Cut Short,” a biography of a remarkable professor; “The Laser That’s Changing the World,” a history of lidar; and “From Jars to the Stars,” a history of Ball Aerospace.