Painting Bravery

A portrait artist tries to capture the remarkable spirit of nurses on the front lines of the pandemic
Tamika Dennis, a nurse at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany, Ga.

One day in March 2020 I started coughing, and thus began my months-long battle with covid-19. It was the same day my beloved cousin Bob succumbed to the disease in an intensive care unit in Tokyo. He had been on the Diamond Princess cruise ship with his wife, daughter and son-in-law for an anniversary celebration, and that journey quickly transformed into a nightmare.

I live in Bushwick, Brooklyn, across the street from Wyckoff Heights Medical Center, where the first patient to die of covid in New York had been treated. By the end of March there was a constant hum on my block caused by the generators of three large, white refrigerator trucks, all serving as temporary storage for covid victims. The hospital morgue had reached capacity, and from my kitchen window it became a regular occurrence to see men in masks, gloves and plastic gowns exit a side door of the hospital with rolling stretchers carrying shrouded bodies that the men then pushed up a ramp to the back of a particular truck.

After a few weeks I started to get some strength back. Every day I would watch nurses and doctors and support staff trudge by on their way to and from long shifts at the hospital. They looked anxious and exhausted. It was hard to imagine the full scope of the horror they were dealing with daily.

At 7 each night, what seemed like most people in the neighborhood would clap, whistle, bang pots and pans, and honk car horns to show respect for the workers’ efforts. Around this time, my upstairs neighbor made a large banner that read “Thank You Wyckoff Hospital Staff!” and hung it on the side of our apartment building facing the hospital. That gesture left me deeply inspired.

I’ve been an artist for more than 30 years, and I primarily paint people in a manner best described as “realism.” Most of my work has employed traditional materials, using oil paint on canvas in an attempt to create the most lifelike rendition possible of my subjects. My struggle with covid was taxing — a combination of extreme fatigue and feeling listless and unfocused — but when I saw that banner, I realized I should do something more than just make noise each night. I became motivated to get back in the studio. I decided that if I painted portraits of front-line workers, I would at least be doing my own small part to pay tribute to them.

Then I happened to see a story on the “Today” show about nurses coming to New York. One nurse explained her decision to leave her family and travel across the country to our city, which at that time was the worst covid hot spot in the country. I took a screenshot of her to use as reference — and, fighting through the fatigue and headaches, I got back in front of my easel. About 10 days later, I had created a portrait I called “Traveling Nurse,” which was the beginning of what would become a larger project I now refer to as my “Healthcare Heroes” series.

With this first painting I was doing something I almost never do: portraying a person I hadn’t met. Yet I felt a connection because of her honesty and humility in her interview. It was also my first time painting someone wearing a mask; one of the biggest challenges was trying to capture her sensitivity while being able to see only her eyes. Finishing this painting made me want to meet the subjects of my next paintings in person. To better represent these nurses, I had to know more about their stories and hear directly from them.

The artist at work on “Grief,” a large painting featuring nurse Amy O’Sullivan, right, comforting nurse Tiffany Latz. O’Sullivan was featured on the cover of Time magazine last fall. (Kerry Thompson)

I posted to Instagram a brief account of my struggle and my intention to get back to work. A follower in Canada mentioned she was close with a nurse who headed up the covid unit at NYU Langone Hospital, also in Brooklyn. She said she had heard heartbreaking stories of her friend’s experience there. I asked if she could connect me. By the end of May I was invited to the hospital to meet the team of nurses there.

Several of the nurses related highly emotional stories of trauma and loss. In our conversations they described an unprecedented number of patients, a shortage of beds, and stretchers lining the hallways — with no end in sight to the suffering. They were drained emotionally and physically, but they had to stay professional, they said, and compartmentalize the pain to keep doing their jobs.

“Nurse Tracey,” featuring Tracey-Ann Knight, a nurse at NYU Langone Hospital in Brooklyn.
“PPE,” with nurse Jennie Vasquez of NYU Langone Hospital.
LEFT: “Nurse Tracey,” featuring Tracey-Ann Knight, a nurse at NYU Langone Hospital in Brooklyn. RIGHT: “PPE,” with nurse Jennie Vasquez of NYU Langone Hospital.

After that, we stepped into a room that had been part of the expanded covid ward so they could pose for reference photographs, which I would use to paint from. More than anything, I wanted to simply capture the nurses’ faces. I’ve always felt faces tell the story of one’s life, but I hoped in this case that their faces might be able to represent the lived experience of front-line health-care workers everywhere.

I always try to stay open to unexpected moments, and when nurse Jennie Vasquez put on her personal protective equipment and I saw the way light played off her plastic gown and face mask, I knew I had to create that painting. It showcased the “armor” that nurses had as their only defense against the virus.

For the final photos of the session, I asked a nurse named Tracey-Ann Knight if she’d be willing to pose, and as soon as she did — flexing heroically while wearing her mask — I knew it was what I needed. She was confident and bright-eyed and exuded vitality. Quite often I find that the energy someone projects is more important to the success of a painting than their physical attributes, and her energy was perfect.

After we wrapped up, I returned to my studio and began to try to do justice to the full range of experiences they had relayed to me. Though I now had some captivating imagery to work with that represented the courage and camaraderie of the nurses, I also realized that not every painting could be a larger-than-life hero pose. I needed to depict the sense of sorrow and loss they felt, too.

Eventually I met two nurses, Tiffany Latz and Amy O’Sullivan, from Wyckoff hospital, who were willing to come to my studio to recount their most difficult moments during the height of the pandemic. Their accounts were devastating. What came out of that was a first for me: a portrait of someone crying. I called that painting “Grief.”

“Two Front War,” based on a selfie taken by Laura Mansfield, who was head of nursing at NYU Langone, lower left.

As the work went on, I was able to coordinate more pose sessions with nurses from New York, Washington and Georgia, either in my studio or by giving direction via FaceTime. It’s been an unexpected dividend that seemingly every session has produced profound conversation, usually starting with anecdotes about the nurses’ fight against covid but often branching out into ruminations on life itself. What has struck me while listening to the stories has been the commonality of the emotional and psychological toll the experience has had on them. Yet almost all of them also explained that this was simply what they were trained to do. One nurse told me, “Thank you for calling us heroes, but really this is just my job.”

While taking a break from painting to get my second vaccination dose several weeks ago, I was talking with the nurse administering the shot and found myself thanking her as she injected the needle. She laughed and asked what I did for a living, so I took out my phone and pulled up several portraits of the nurses. “Wow! These look so real!” she exclaimed and called over a few other nurses to show them the work. They were doing their job with such conviction and determination, these nurses, and for now I was trying my best to do the same.

“Nurse Patti,” a portrait of traveling nurse Patricia Lafontant.

Tim Okamura is an artist in New York.

Design by Christian Font.

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