Hero Art Project honors health care workers lost to COVID-19 Art curator Susannah Perlman, who lost her mother to COVID-19, created the Hero Art Project on the National Mall to eternalize the smiles of other health care workers lost to the pandemic.

An art exhibit on the National Mall honors health care workers who died of COVID

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Susannah Perlman is the founder of ARTHOUSE.NYC, and we meet her on the National Mall next to a brother and sister playing violin.

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FADEL: Perlman is dressed in a silver blazer paired with Puma sneakers and stands in front of what looks like a tiny house in the shadow of the Washington Monument. This tiny house is an art exhibit named for Perlman's mother, Marla, a health care worker who died from COVID last year. And it's what inspired this project, an inviting home filled with portraits of other first responders and health care workers who were killed in this pandemic. More than 100 paintings, drawings and digital artwork rotate through a series of framed flat screens hanging on the walls.

SUSANNAH PERLMAN: My mother was always very proud of her home. She loved decorating, and she loved putting together stuff. When I walked in here for the first time, I'm like, yeah, she'd like this.

FADEL: Well, let's go in and see what it is, 'cause I see wood paneling. It really does look like a little house.

PERLMAN: You know, it just feels like a living room and gallery space. You know, we have sliding glass doors and all these windows, so a lot of very natural light comes in. You know, when the sun kind of moves over to the other side, the images really kind of take over because they are on digital screens.

FADEL: And these images in front of us that we're looking at right now?

PERLMAN: These are all different health care workers from all over the United States, created by the ARTHOUSE.NYC collective. It's interesting, when I - when we started this project, I felt like these two communities of the health care workers and art community really mirrored each other because they were from far-flung areas.

FADEL: In what way?

PERLMAN: Just because the health care workers who come to the United States to work are literally - the Philippines, India, Europe, South America. I mean, they're really from all over the world. And that's also what made this very heartbreaking. There was a - one over there, the woman was from the Philippines, and she came here kind of alone. But she was supporting her family back in the Philippines. And when she passed away, you know, they couldn't even come and get into the country to have a funeral. So there was, like, a whole thing of getting her body back to the Philippines to bury her. So when we had reached out to them, of course, they were saying, we would love it if you did a portrait. And then we had - the artist was from the U.K., so we had to get the portrait to the Philippines, where they had this beautiful memorial ceremony, and the portrait was sort of at the center of it.

FADEL: Is your mother up here?

PERLMAN: My mother is not here yet just because there's a very specific photo that I want - this wonderful expression when she would laugh, that her smile was so big, it was in a couple of zip codes. And that's the face that I loved when my mother - you have it right now (laughter).

FADEL: A smile that just - yeah.

PERLMAN: This big beaming smile. And that's what I miss the most of her. I mean, here we are on the National Mall, where you have tons of memorials. And this was a war in its own way. So here is a monument to these individuals who gave their lives, who went to work despite the risks and ultimately paid the ultimate price.

FADEL: You obviously know personally what it is to lose somebody to this war that you described. But also, I think sometimes people almost are talking about it like it's over. And I just wonder, having this monument, as you describe it, what it means to memorialize these names, these faces and the losses that so many families have suffered.

PERLMAN: Sure. I think during the pandemic, we would rarely see the faces. We'd rarely see these human lives that were behind these numbers, which I found more heartbreaking than anything else that I can think of during that whole time. It's just that these people were just being lost and forgotten. So this project brings that out. You know, you put a face with a name, you understand this person had a life. They had history. They had families. They had roots. They had, you know, the way they lived their lives. It's more of a personal touch than the statistics.

FADEL: Yeah, there's, like, these black-and-white portraits, color portraits. Some look more digital, some more...

PERLMAN: Yes. Yes.

FADEL: ...Almost like a photograph.

PERLMAN: Absolutely. I mean, we accepted anybody who wanted to participate, artists of all different styles and levels - just put them in a gallery. And when the families would get in touch with us, we would make that connection.

FADEL: What have they said to you, the families? Have they been able to see?

PERLMAN: That has been overwhelming - people saying to me, you will never know how meaningful this was that you reached out to us at such a dark time and did this in such a public way because they've - many of them have felt that way, that their loved one was just taken away from them, and then nothing, nothing spoken about it. And it's - was became very private, when death, as sad as it is, you know, brings community together, and not having that - so I think a lot of them have been so touched by it as well.

FADEL: I just love this one.

PERLMAN: Beautiful.

FADEL: His face, his yellow shirt, the sun in the back.

PERLMAN: So that specific one was - that's our brand-new portrait. It's of Noel Sinkiat. He was a nurse at Howard University Hospital, and he actually was the first nurse in D.C. to pass away. So we connected with the Philippine Nurses Association of Washington, D.C., and they connected us to his widow to create this.

FADEL: Do you happen to remember what his widow said when you got in touch?

PERLMAN: We have had this conversation that has lasted over two years.

FADEL: Yeah.

PERLMAN: I think also because she has moved. And that's what I found with a lot of families, is that, you know, sometimes they lost their breadwinner. I think that that's a story that's untold, is how their loss has upended so many lives.

FADEL: We spoke with the creator of that portrait, Lynne St Clare Foster.

LYNNE ST CLARE FOSTER: What I wanted to do was incorporate not just the portrait - just the head, as I usually say - I try to bring in bits and pieces of their world, their life, their culture. So you'll notice that there's - in the background you can see a tiny little image of some of the original Filipino nurses that came to this country.

FADEL: What's it like to participate in this particular project?

FOSTER: It's sort of overwhelming when I think about, you know, how many people really lost. These were the people on the front lines, same way that the frontline workers were working during 9/11. This has just been global. The families were not able to say goodbye to their people. They really weren't allowed to mourn the way people normally mourn.

FADEL: Yeah.

FOSTER: They also weren't allowed to celebrate their families. The blend of traditional and digital was really important to me, sort of helped me to embrace the past and the present and the future.

FADEL: I do get a sense of almost, like, knowing more about him because of the movement in the image. Yeah.

FOSTER: It makes it feel like he's alive.

FADEL: Yes.

FOSTER: You know? And I think there's another portrait of another woman that I - the first one I did, where I have, like, this glow behind her. It's like she's an angel. There's an angelic sort of sense to it.

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FADEL: Her name was Aleyamma John. Among the many others immortalized in these portraits are Amanda Zivic, Anand Mehendale, Anjali Verma, Greg Peistrup, Carrie Lynn Henning, Daisy Doronila and Dwight Inouye.

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