When Robert Friedman was furloughed from his job at the library of the University of Pennsylvania on March 9 due to the COVID-19 shutdown rolling across the city, he thought that he would be back to work in a few weeks with the virus tamed and the threat resolved.
As weeks became months and the tally of cases and deaths rose, Friedman realized it wouldn’t be so simple. Self-isolating in his Point Breeze apartment, he searched for ways to both kill time and cope emotionally with the circumstances of the pandemic. Then he had an idea.
“I’m good at doing, you know, reconstructive drawing,” Friedman said. “Drawing from photographs or maybe portraits of people who died 150 years ago. I thought, why not start doing portraits of people who have perished of COVID?”
Since June, Friedman has led a project he named “The Trouble I’ve Seen.” Its aim: to catalog the victims of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Philadelphia area through portraiture.
The volunteer-led project, consisting of Friedman and several other artists, has grown steadily since its inception through media coverage and posts on Facebook groups like Being Neighborly: Philadelphia.
Kazuhiro Adachi, an artist who joined the project after reading about it in the newspaper, said he had done similar work before and was aware of other projects with a similar purpose.
“I think artists are trying to figure out how to keep our spirits in some ways,” Adachi said. “and being more active about offering their services where they think it matters.”
So far, the portraits have been drawn from photographs, mostly culled from obituaries or sent by family members in response to online calls for submissions Friedman has made. Once finished, the drawings have been posted to the project’s Facebook page.
Friedman has so far kept the identities of subjects anonymous, a decision he explained was born both out of respect for grieving families and a sense that such details are not essential to the project’s aims.
Adachi, who has received all of his subjects from Friedman, said he had only a little information about them before he started drawing.
“We research, you know,” Adachi said. “I look up their names and see what I can find about them. But I definitely keep my distance, because it’s a private matter.”
Elise Gaul, a grief counselor who holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology from the University of Pennsylvania, linked the desire to recognize death in nontraditional ways, like through art, with the remoteness of death brought by the particular conditions of the pandemic.
“Everybody’s looking for new ways to mark the loss, and maybe this is a part of that,” Gaul said, referring to the absence of funerals, hospice visitation, and memorial gatherings made impossible by COVID-19. “Grief is a layered process, and it often doesn’t have words. That’s why art is really useful.”
Gaul also related it to the feeling of numbness — and to a basic human need for empathy.
“I think there’s a sense of, you know, let’s talk about who this person was, what marks they made on other people and the planet, and why they mattered,” Gaul said. “And if we lose sight of that, we’re in trouble.”
Friedman said he hopes to continue and expand the project, possibly through a series of community workshops to teach non-professional-artists how to draw portraits of their own to honor lost loved ones, and hopes to build a gallery of the portraits once the pandemic has passed.
As of July 18, the death toll brought by COVID-19 sat at around 1,660, according to data from the city Department of Public Health.
Friedman said he was driven to begin the project in part by a fear that he was becoming numb to what was going on around him.
“When I started the drawing project, I think there were about 1,279 Philadelphians who had died of the coronavirus,” Friedman said. “Now it’s getting up near 1,700. You know, these are not just numbers! This is real.”
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