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Inspired by her grandfather, 15-year-old memorializes coronavirus victims with digital portraits

Hannah Ernst with her grandfather, Cal Schoenfeld. (Courtesy of Karent Ernst)

Since August, 15-year-old Parsippany, N.J., resident Hannah Ernst has drawn nearly 400 digital portraits of people who have died of the novel coronavirus, each featuring a silhouette of the victim on a yellow heart background. Ernst’s “Faces of Covid Victims” project is a visual reminder that the 1 million lives lost to the virus so far are more than just numbers, but family members and friends.

Ernst’s grandfather, Calvin “Cal” Schoenfeld, died of covid-19 on May 8. A Brooklyn native who had a long career as a graphic designer, Schoenfeld, 83, loved telling “dad jokes” and taking trips to the Met after his retirement in 2012. He passed down his love of art to his family, including Ernst, one of his four grandchildren.

“My grandpa is the inspiration for this and he meant everything to me,” Ernst said. “He was my No. 1 supporter in everything that I did. … In a way, I’m remembering him through art, which was kind of his life’s passion."

In mid-August, Ernst, who recently got into digital design after sketching, drawing and painting for years, was “messing around” with the Procreate app on her iPad and drew a silhouette of her grandfather in a blue polo shirt and glasses, his white hair parted to the side. Ernst’s mother, Karen, was so impressed with the portrait of her late father that, with Hannah’s consent, she shared it with her online coronavirus support groups and solicited requests for portraits from others who had lost loved ones to the disease.

The next day, Hannah created a Facebook page and an Instagram account to share her portraits, figuring she might receive five or 10 additional requests.

“It’s just snowballed,” she said. “Suddenly, we were getting 10, and then 20 requests per day. Eventually, it went national, and then we were getting people from India, Greece, England and all over the place asking for portraits.”

Ernst says a single portrait, which she draws from a photograph provided by the victim’s loved one, typically takes about 15 minutes. Some portraits, including of people in uniform or holding something, such as a pet or a meaningful object, take a bit longer.

As of Wednesday morning, Ernst had posted 387 portraits on social media. Among them: 77-year-old Gene Kalish, who was drawn in a Detroit Red Wings T-shirt, and Thom and Edith Ecker, who were married for 68 years and died within 10 days of each other. Ernst memorialized 52-year-old Jerry Drake holding his twin children and 35-year-old Carmelo “Pokey” Franchino Castro, who loved to fish, showing off an enormous catch. Each portrait is accompanied by a few sentences about the person’s life.

“It’s kind of a more lighthearted way to remember victims, rather than just seeing the doom and gloom that this virus has unfortunately brought to this country,” Ernst said.

Ernst has about 100 pending requests for portraits, which she fulfills in the order she receives them. After Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Friday, Ernst took a break from drawing coronavirus victims to commemorate Ginsburg’s life with a similarly styled portrait, swapping out the yellow heart for a purple one, symbolizing pancreatic cancer awareness.

“She was one of my inspirations,” Ernst said of Ginsburg. “She just stood for everything that I think is right in times like this."

Ernst said she remains frustrated by those who continue to dismiss the seriousness of the coronavirus and ignore the guidelines to reduce its spread, but the gratitude and support she has received from the community of people who have lost loved ones to the disease is “beyond anything I could have imagined.”

Ernst started 10th grade this month and is taking all of her classes virtually. While navigating that challenge, she continues to draw portraits in her free time and has no intention of slowing down.

“This is definitely something I want to keep doing,” Ernst said. “With the things that are said on the news in regards to second waves, if God forbid there is one, I’m trying to just raise awareness that there are so many lives that can be saved and hopefully that means that there’s less faces I have to draw. As much as I love helping the family members and remembering those lost, I’d rather not do it, because that just means there’s one more person who’s passed away.”

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