Portraits of the Pandemic

A group of Central Ohio artists teamed up to depict frontline workers and send them their creations. The artwork reveals the sacrifice, resilience and pride of people whose efforts have never been more crucial.

Chris Gaitten

In late April, the BBC produced a story about artist Tom Croft, who painted a free portrait of a frontline medical worker to honor her service during the early days of the U.K.’s pandemic lockdown. He encouraged others on Instagram to do the same, and his idea spread worldwide. In Central Ohio, the story caught the eye of artists Susan Schubert and Virginia Jenison. The two women, both retired, had been taking classes at the Cultural Arts Center Downtown and were inspired by the project. 

“It seemed like it was very important to do, to recognize people who are really meeting the needs of people and sometimes putting their own self and families into jeopardy,” Schubert says. 

She knew many artists through the CAC, and she posted about the project in The Art and Artists of 614 group on Facebook. She asked artists if they knew frontline workers who would like to be featured, invited her own health care providers to participate, contacted family members for suggestions and put out a call on the Facebook fan pages for Gov. Mike DeWine and Dr. Amy Acton, then the director of the Ohio Department of Health. In Jenison’s words: “As is her style, Susan took the ball and ran.” 

More than a dozen other Central Ohio artists signed on. They were provided photos of people on the front lines, most of them local, though some are scattered around the country. While many are the type of critical health care workers associated with fighting COVID-19, others contribute in ways that might be overlooked: anesthesiologists, a social worker, a chaplain and bereavement coordinator. 

The project is ongoing, Schubert says, but the first 22 portraits have been completed. The originals were given to the subjects, and there are plans to display prints as part of a larger exhibition, Central Ohio Artists’ Pandemic Art: Expressions Through Art, at the Columbus Historical Society in Franklinton. Jack Benjamin, the CHS board exhibits chair, hopes it will be held this spring. 

Schubert also shared them with Columbus Monthly. The portraits printed here show the draining effects of a harrowing year, but there’s an unexpected buoyancy to many of the works, too. People are smiling, with some grins noticeable even beneath masks. Schubert says the artists captured “elation, fatigue, enthusiasm and beauty.” In email exchanges with the magazine, the portrait subjects revealed snippets of their lives on the front line, and artists explained their motivations. 

Flint Garrabrant, an art teacher at Watkins Memorial High School in Pataskala, decided to participate because he wanted to show the human face of the first responders and essentials workers. “You hear the words and job titles on the news but never really see much of the face of the people [it] references,” he says. “It needs to be more personal.”

Jessica Burleson, crisis response respiratory therapist

Jessica Burleson, crisis response respiratory therapist, by Virginia Jenison 

The portrait is based on a photo of Burleson, a friend of Jenison’s niece. She’d fallen asleep on the bus after a long shift. The figure keeping watch is her husband, Joey, who cares for their kids at home in Tennessee while she travels to hot spots in Texas and New York. “I left a job of 20 years to help on the front lines, and I don’t regret that decision one bit,” Burleson says. On Christmas morning, she left home again to return to Texas. 

Angela Billingslea, medical social worker at Nationwide Children’s Hospital

Angela Billingslea, medical social worker at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, by Barbara Chuko

A retired counselor who takes CAC classes, Chuko has enjoyed painting and drawing portraits since childhood. For her rendering of Billingslea, done in acrylic paint, Chuko used several photos and researched her on Facebook. She met Billingslea to give her the painting—both wore masks, Chuko adds—and Billingslea shared more of her life story with the artist. 

Ethan Sprunger, neuroscience intensive care nurse at Mount Carmel East

Ethan Sprunger, neuroscience intensive care nurse at Mount Carmel East, by Catherine Sprunger

Catherine didn’t have to search far to find a subject. Her son, Ethan, is a trauma center nurse. The photo she used shows him wearing a bandage on his head to demonstrate to a patient that the wrap doesn’t hurt. Catherine gave him the portrait for his birthday, which was emotional for both of them, she says. It’s the first piece of artwork she’s ever finished. 

Mike Magnotti, nurse, Helen Krouse, respiratory therapist and ECLS specialist, Mia Trigg, nurse, Mark Flores, nurse

Mike Magnotti, nurse, Helen Krouse, respiratory therapist and ECLS specialist, Mia Trigg, nurse, Mark Flores, nurse, by Renee Flagg 

Krouse lives in Columbus but was working alongside three Virginia cardiovascular ICU nurses at Inova Fairfax Hospital when this moment was captured. Magnotti says he’s proud to have one of the nation’s highest survivability rates within their COVID extracorporeal life support program, or ECLS, a type of heart-lung bypass. “It really means a lot to have people recognize all of the daily, ongoing and at times incredibly anxious work we went through this year, and still will continue to face as the pandemic takes on a new life this winter,” he says. 

Nurses and ECLS specialists Jensen Atkinson and Jessica Cogo

Nurses and ECLS specialists Jensen Atkinson and Jessica Cogo, by Colleen Fortney

An art minor at Ohio State before entering the fashion industry, Fortney was recruited to the project by her boyfriend’s mom, Catherine Sprunger. Amid the mask-wearing era, Fortney says she thought it was interesting to focus on the smiles of Atkinson and Cogo, who were working in an Oklahoma health care facility as ECLS specialists. 

Stacy Rucker, medical-surgical nurse, Carey McCord, critical care floating nurse, Candace Engle, medical-surgical nurse

Stacy Rucker, medical-surgical nurse, Carey McCord, critical care floating nurse, Candace Engle, medical-surgical nurse, by Paula Benack 

Gratitude prompted Benack to create this portrait of three OSU nurses, which she painted in oil on canvas. “I believed it to be a way of saying thank you for working so diligently to help keep us safe,” the freelance artist says. 

Calisa Nickelson, clinical counselor at Seasons Life Coaching and Counseling

Calisa Nickelson, clinical counselor at Seasons Life Coaching and Counseling, by Susan Schubert 

This portrait, one of two Schubert made, shows a worker who could be undervalued in such a crisis: a mental health practitioner. Nickelson runs her own Gahanna counseling practice, and she emphasizes that mental health services are part of the front lines, too—and they remain available to those in need. 

Bryan McKay, hospital safety and security officer

Bryan McKay, hospital safety and security officer, by Jennie Nickel

Like many other contributors, Nickel didn’t begin practicing art until after retirement. Since then, she has studied at the CAC and Cooley Studios in Worthington, focusing on oil painting in the realistic style she used to represent McKay, a Central Ohio resident. McKay is honored to be included and calls the artwork “insanely impressive.” 

Elizabeth Lempert, pharmacist

Elizabeth Lempert, pharmacist, by Liandra Kreil

An artist all her life, Kreil is a Columbus College of Art & Design grad who now works as a bench jeweler and designer at Morgan’s Treasure Custom Jewelry in Westerville. She used watercolors to paint Lempert, a New York pharmacist. After receiving the portrait, Lempert wrote to Kreil to tell her how much of an impact it made on her family. Kreil says, “I have friends and loved ones in health care, and I know that they are always humbly making a difference. They need our recognition now more than ever as we depend on them to endure this pandemic and the additional burden it has placed on their everyday work.”