The Pandemic Portrait Series

I could talk about the art, but this is so much more than the art. I’ll let the art speak for itself. 

This project began at the end of April 2020. I started by painting portraits of my two cousins who are both doctors in Michigan. They’d only been working on the Covid-19 pandemic for a couple of months at Beaumont Hospital in Farmington Hills. My cousins were working 13-hour days, and they were seeing 25-year-olds who didn’t make it through the illness. 

I posted the portraits on Instagram. I was just sharing my work as I do, posting whatever I was working on. There was such an outpouring of people liking, commenting, and messaging; my work opened the floodgate to allow those who are not in the medical field to connect with those at the front line. People came forward to nominate their friends and family, so I continued painting.

As I created more portraits, I put these pictures up in my living room. My neighbor saw it, and he connected me to Tammy at Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle. Tammy gave me several dozen photos of her coworkers: from a maintenance worker who cleaned the ER floor all the way to the hospital director. There were photos of nurses, pharmacists, and those in palliative care. I said I’d do the whole set.

Now there were 37 portraits just for Virginia Mason. Tammy organized a way to display all of them in two locations, including a showcase by the cafeteria. Just having the art out there, knowing the people by their names, brought so much support. Support for me and my paintings, but more importantly support the health care workers themselves. There were faces behind those surgical masks. These were human beings with names.

Another friend who works for Kaiser Permanente in Seattle asked me if I could do a set. The 12 chiefs of the Covid program had been working crazy hours, and they deserved recognition for all they had done in 2020. 

Michelle Esposito, a nurse from Philadelphia, sent me a selfie of herself with four coworkers. She said they were having a tough time, and she asked for a portrait of the five of them. I volunteered. At that time, I switched from painting on paper to claybord panels. I mounted all of them and sent them to Jefferson Hospital in Philly.

That’s when word really got out. I kept getting requests in my direct messages via Instagram–including Belgium, the United Kingdom, and people from India who my friends knew. Things are so different in India, how doctors are coping, the available PPE (personal protective equipment). 

This project has been like jumping on a fast-moving train. It’s moved at its own pace–very quickly–to where it is today. A portrait used to take me about 15 hours, and now I’m doing them in an hour. I’ve done an average of one every day for the last 8 months.

I finished 140 portraits on January 13. I haven’t said, “No,” to anyone who’s requested so far, but now I have to. It’s starting to get to me. Healthcare workers have died from Covid. I’ve done portraits of two of them, and it’s been very hard. 

Here are the portraits. These are the people fighting the pandemic every day. None of us knows how long it will go on.

Jayashree Krishnan
January 2021