Congratulations to ACT Lab postdoctoral fellow Julia Henderson on her recent publications! Henderson, who is a recent PhD graduate of University of British Columbia’s Theatre Studies program, researches how performance practices intersect with public perceptions of old age. However, at the start of the pandemic, as much of her beloved theater had closed, Henderson looked elsewhere for inspiration.
As the pandemic started ramping up in March of 2020, a major media focus was placed on ‘frontline workers’– both healthcare professionals and retail workers alike, as the general public started to come to terms with the sacrifices that had to be made for seemingly everyday activities such as grocery shopping.
Julia Henderson was aware of this shift, as many newspapers published photo stories of workers exhausted in their PPE, and communities came together to show support through “seven o’clock cheers” for frontline workers. Henderson states that while the aforementioned photos were largely uninspiring, many frontline workers she knew felt supported by the community cheers. Henderson explains, “Participatory celebrations are a way to feel connected and part of something larger than our own isolated circles […] they allow us moments to set aside fear. Celebrations for Frontline Workers in particular offer support and encouragement to a group who has borne much of the burden of this pandemic.”
Henderson was further inspired by testimonies from doctors upset by the disconnect and depersonalization they felt between them and their patients due to the layers of masks, gowns, gloves, and face shields they had to wear while on shift.
With all of this in mind, she wondered what sort of work she could create to support frontline workers.
Despite not being a formally trained visual artist, Henderson decided to turn to her iPad as a canvas to sketch portraits of frontline workers in their PPE. Henderson explains she, “wanted to publicly honour the sacrifices of frontliners by creating art that would make them feel beautiful, loved, supported, appreciated, and inspired, and I wanted the public to engage with this art in order to support frontliners and encourage a sense of community”.
Through the project now titled “Frontline Faces of Covid-19”, Henderson created dozens of portraits of healthcare workers, highlighting not only their faces wearing PPE, but also including objects, hobbies and cultural symbols of the subject’s choosing in the background.
Henderson explained of this project, “I attempted to engender a sense of conversation, intersubjectivity, and community and to create a public forum for audience responses.” She explained that while these workers were putting their physical and mental wellbeing on the line everyday, she hoped her project would be a source of light and empowerment in these trying times.
As the project grew, so did the response. Henderson explains she “had many positive, supportive comments from the public and even a letter from the President of Concordia (Dr. Graham Carr) and a [CTV] News article written about the project.”
However, not all the responses were positive. After attempting to broaden her reach on social media, Henderson started receiving angry, anti-mask comments about her project, stating how sad it was to see portraits of people with their faces covered by masks. Yet, Henderson argues, “[This project] was to celebrate and humanize health care workers who were regulated to wear personal protective equipment as part of their jobs, and for the public’s safety. I mean, even pre-COVID, who would want an unmasked doctor or dentist looking in their mouth?”
Despite the slight negativity, when speaking about what this project has taught her, Henderson adds, “I think it enhanced my awareness of the power of visual art, especially art that is accessible on public digital platforms, to reach, support, comfort, heal, across time and space.”