One day in March 2020, I started to cough and so started my months-long battle with covid-19. It was the very day that my beloved cousin Bob died of illness in an intensive care unit in Tokyo. He was aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship with his wife, daughter and son-in-law for a birthday celebration, and this trip quickly turned into a nightmare.
I live in Bushwick, Brooklyn, across from Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, where the first patient to die of covid in New York was treated. At the end of March, there was a constant buzz in my neighborhood caused by the generators of three large white refrigerated trucks, all serving as temporary storage for covid victims. The hospital morgue had reached capacity, and from my kitchen window it became common to see men wearing plastic masks, gloves and gowns exiting through a side door of the hospital. with rolling stretchers carrying wrapped bodies which the men then pushed up a ramp to the back of a particular truck.
After a few weeks, I started to regain my strength. Every day I watched nurses, doctors and support staff trudge to and from long shifts in the hospital. They looked anxious and exhausted. It was hard to imagine the full extent of the horror they faced on a daily basis.
At 7 a.m. each evening, what seemed like most people in the neighborhood were clapping, hissing, slamming pots and pans, and honking their horns to show their respect for the efforts of the workers. Around this time, my neighbor upstairs made a large banner that read “Thanks to the staff at Wyckoff Hospital! and hung on the side of our building facing the hospital. This gesture inspired me deeply.
I have been an artist for over 30 years and mainly paint people in a way that is best described as “realism”. Most of my work has used traditional materials, using oil paint on canvas in an effort to create the most realistic rendering possible of my subjects. My struggle with covid was grueling – a combination of extreme fatigue and feeling listless and lacking in focus – but when I saw this banner, I realized I needed to do something more than just workout. noise every night. I became motivated to go back to the studio. I decided that if I painted portraits of frontline workers, I would at least do my little part to honor them.
Then I saw a story on the “Today” show about nurses coming to New York. A nurse explained her decision to leave her family and travel across the country to our city, which at the time was the worst hotspot in the country. I took a screenshot of her to use as a reference – and, struggling with fatigue and headaches, I returned to my easel. About 10 days later, I had created a portrait that I called “Traveling Nurse”, which was the start of what was to become a larger project that I now call my “Healthcare Heroes” series.
With this first painting, I was doing something that I hardly ever do: represent a person I had not met. Still, I felt a connection because of his honesty and humility in his interview. It was also the first time that I painted someone wearing a mask; one of the biggest challenges has been trying to capture his sensitivity while only being able to see his eyes. Finishing this painting made me want to meet in person the subjects of my next paintings. To better represent these nurses, I needed to know more about their stories and hear them firsthand.
I posted on Instagram a brief account of my struggle and my intention to return to work. A follower in Canada mentioned that she was close to a nurse who ran the covid unit at NYU Langone Hospital, also in Brooklyn. She said she had heard heartbreaking stories about her friend’s experience there. I asked if she could connect me. At the end of May, I was invited to the hospital to meet with the nursing team.
Several nurses told very moving stories of trauma and loss. During our conversations, they described an unprecedented number of patients, a shortage of beds and stretchers lining the hallways – with no end in sight for the suffering. They were exhausted emotionally and physically, but they had to stay professional, they said, and compartmentalize the pain in order to continue doing their jobs.
“Nurse Tracey,” starring Tracey-Ann Knight, a nurse at NYU Langone Hospital in Brooklyn.
“PPE,” with nurse Jennie Vasquez from NYU Langone Hospital.
LEFT: “Nurse Tracey,” starring Tracey-Ann Knight, nurse at NYU Langone Hospital in Brooklyn. RIGHT: “PPE”, with nurse Jennie Vasquez from NYU Langone Hospital.
After that, we entered a room that was part of the enlarged covid room so that they could pose for reference photographs, from which I would use to paint. More than anything, I just wanted to capture the faces of the nurses. I always felt that the faces told the story of her life, but in this case I hoped that their faces could represent the lived experience of frontline health workers everywhere.
I always try to stay open at unexpected times, and when nurse Jennie Vasquez put on her personal protective equipment and saw the way the light played on her plastic gown and face shield, I knew I had to create this painting. It showed the “armor” that nurses had as their only defense against the virus.
For the final photos of the shoot, I asked a nurse named Tracey-Ann Knight if she would be ready to pose, and as soon as she did – heroically flexing while wearing her mask – I knew that that was what I needed. She was confident, her eyes shining and exuded vitality. Quite often I find that the energy that someone projects is more important to the success of a painting than their physical attributes, and their energy was perfect.
Once we were done, I went back to my studio and started trying to do justice to all of the experiences they had given me. While I now had some compelling images to work with that represented the courage and camaraderie of nurses, I also realized that not all paintings could be a larger than life hero pose. I needed to portray the feeling of grief and loss they were feeling too.
Eventually, I met two nurses, Tiffany Latz and Amy O’Sullivan, from Wyckoff Hospital, who were ready to come to my studio to recount their most difficult times during the height of the pandemic. Their accounts were devastating. What came out was a first for me: a portrait of someone crying. I called this painting “Mourning”.
As I worked, I was able to coordinate more posing sessions with nurses from New York, Washington, and Georgia, either in my studio or by giving directions via FaceTime. It was an unexpected dividend that apparently each session produced a deep conversation, usually starting with anecdotes about nurses’ struggle with covid, but often turning into ruminations about life itself. What struck me as I listened to the stories is the commonality of the emotional and psychological impact the experience had on them. Yet almost all of them also explained that this is just what they were trained to do. A nurse said to me, “Thank you for calling us heroes, but in reality, this is just my job. “
As I took a break from painting to receive my second dose of the vaccination several weeks ago, I was chatting with the nurse who had administered the vaccine and found myself thanking her as she injected herself. needle. She laughed and asked me what I did for a living, so I pulled out my phone and pulled out several portraits of the nurses. “Wow! These look so real!” She exclaimed and called a few other nurses to show them the job. They were doing their jobs with such conviction and determination, these nurses, and for now. I was trying my best to do the same.
Tim Okamura is an artist in New York.
Design by Christian Font.