Perlman said she was struck by the plight of healthcare workers during the pandemic and wanted to do something to honor their sacrifice. The statistics seemed to overshadow “the face behind the statistic,” Perlman said.
“We were banging pots and pans for the ones marching into the hospitals, but it felt like it was getting very anonymous [with the statistics when they died],” Perlman said. “They had given their lives trying to save their fellow human beings. It sort of hit me, ‘What if we had something that we could do that would be very public and that would have a healing aspect to it?’”
Perlman, who has worked in digital art gallery spaces for about 10 years, reached out to artists she knew to ask if they were interested in participating in a portrait project to honor healthcare workers. She also contacted families who had lost loved ones to see if they were interested in participating.
Each family was given access to a portfolio of artists’ work to be able to select the artist and style of art they wanted for the portrait of their loved one. Then, the artist contacted the family to gather photos and stories about the person who died.
“Once I talked to her [Susannah] and I had a sense of what the whole project was about, I was 100 percent on board,” said Scott Papetti, whose mother, MaryBeth Papetti, died on March 24, 2020.
Papetti wanted to make sure that his mother’s love of life was captured in the portrait. Once he chose an artist, he provided the artist with photos and shared some details about his mother’s life to help them get to know who she was.
“One of the things that everyone always talked about when it came to her [my mother] was her smile,” Papetti said. “That's something that I really wanted to show. Her love of life was unbelievable.”
After MaryBeth died, her body was cremated, but the family was unable to have a memorial service until September 2020. The date they chose was the wedding anniversary of MaryBeth and her husband, Cesare. Two days before the memorial, the portrait arrived in the mail.
“My jaw dropped when I actually saw it live,” Papetti said. “It was so much better upfront and in person. We had it right next to her urn at the memorial and people were really taken aback by it.”
Papetti’s mother was a lifelong Catholic and worked as a nurse in long-term care facilities in northern New Jersey. She was known for her tireless work ethic, Papetti said.
“She was someone who cared a tremendous amount about people, her job, and about life,” he said. “The [Hero Art] project is keeping her memory alive and in a way that people know what she was about. It means the world to the family members who are left [behind].”
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One of the biggest challenges of the pandemic, Perlman said, was that a family was not able to gather to grieve or have public funerals.
“All of a sudden this individual who you communicate with every day and who was so much a part of your life, is not, and your ability to say goodbye to them is gone,” Perlman said. “But, when they see their loved one in all these public spaces, and that they’re being honored, they can show that person to their world and share their story.”
Two Hero Art Project portraits hang in a Miami medical clinic: one of Carlos Vallejo, a doctor of internal medicine, and one of his father, Jorge Vallejo, an OB-GYN in the area. The two doctors, both devout Catholics, died just over a month apart in 2020 from COVID-19.
“When patients come into the clinic and see the portraits, they will get emotional,” said Charles Vallejo, son of Carlos and grandson of Jorge. “He never once abandoned his patients and he was with them to the end, no matter what. It’s nice, in a way, to still have them [my father and grandfather] around with the patients, still doing what they love.”
Carlos Vallejo would always talk about his Catholic faith with his patients, Charles said, which “set him apart from a lot of other physicians.”
“A lot of the decisions in patient care had to do with his faith,” said Charles, who is studying medicine to follow in his father’s footsteps. “When his patients had COVID, a lot of people told him, ‘Be careful, don’t touch those patients, don’t see them, but that never deterred him. He continued seeing his patients.”