Susannah Perlman, founder and curator of the digital gallery Arthouse.NYC, lost her mother—a former New York City healthcare worker—to Covid in December 2021. Now she wants to honor the many healthcare workers who died during Covid with The Hero Art Project.
The Hero Art Project is a collaboration between members of Arthouse.NYC’s artistic community and the family members of doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers who died during the pandemic. The heart-wrenching yet hopeful project encourages people to request a portrait of the loved one who they have lost.
The exhibition of these portraits launches nationally on Nov. 10 at the National Mall in Washington D.C. It will be contained in a tiny-house gallery—named “Marla,” after Perlman’s mother—and students from The Duke Ellington School of Museum Studies Program will act as docents. In addition, George Washington University will facilitate art therapy activities with butterfly-themed projects, while street artist Gaia will create an interactive mural.
After wrapping up in D.C. on Nov. 28, the show will travel around the country. The portraits can also be viewed on the heroartproject.org website, each paired with a biography of the fallen healthcare hero.
While there’s no exact figure, healthcare workers were one of the worst impacted groups during the pandemic, which has taken nearly 6.6 million lives. According to the World Health Organization, in the first 16 months of the pandemic alone, at least 180,000 healthcare workers died due to Covid-19.
“We will never get back the human lives who were lost but we can continue to share their memories and stories to inspire the next generation to do good,” says Perlman. “With sadness there is always hope for the future.”
Here, we find out more about the exhibition and about how Perlman is using art as a force for good—and for healing.
My Background: “I moved to New York in the early 90’s to pursue musical theater and stand-up comedy, which has become a lifelong passion—I love making others laugh,” says Perlman. “I became a graphic designer to support my performing and later founded Arthouse.NYC, which combines a digital gallery and an event company, elevating emerging artists from all corners of the world.”
The Inspiration: “A few years before the pandemic I did a memorial for a beloved artist who had passed away. I had his artwork projected on a giant billboard on the side of the building where the memorial was held,” says Perlman. “During the pandemic, I was hit with an idea. There were so many people who were losing loved ones, particularly healthcare workers, to Covid but they were unable to hold funerals in person. This prospect was heartbreaking, especially after losing my own mother to Covid and experiencing the process firsthand.”
The Concept: “I thought to connect the grieving families of these healthcare workers with our artist community to honor these heroic individuals with portraits and exhibit them on billboards,” says Perlman. “I sent out a call for artists and received an overwhelming response from the Arthouse.NYC community as many of them were sitting at home without much to do and eager to help. The next step was to connect with the families of the healthcare workers, which proved a bit more challenging. I spent hours pouring over obituaries and reaching out to families via social media and Go Fund Me sites.”
The Scope: “Within a month, about 35 portraits were commissioned,” says Perlman. “Requests for the exhibit continued to roll in, and the program eventually caught the eye of New York Life, which had initiated the Brave of Heart Fund to honor the memories of healthcare workers whose lives were lost in the fight against Covid. We teamed up with Brave of Heart Fund to exhibit the portraits in the windows of Manhattan’s iconic New York Life Building, and now they’re also sponsoring this upcoming exhibit.”
Going National: “Wanting to tour the project to other areas of the country, I created the concept of a digital art gallery inside of a tiny house to exhibit the work. The tiny house gallery is named ‘Marla’ after my mother and is traveling to the places where these healthcare workers were from,” says Perlman.
The Artists: “I am very fortunate to have worked with massively talented artists for The Hero Art Project,” says Perlman. “Each portrait is unique. What became a bit unexpected is that this project is as healing for the participating artists as it was for the families.”
How it Works: “Our artists work with the families to create multimedia portraits of these medical heroes to celebrate their lives, sacrifices and legacies,” said Perlman. “Each family is able to select the artist and art style that they feel most represents the spirit of their loved one and collaborate with the artist to capture their soul.”
The Heroes: “We have every type of healthcare worker represented in The Hero Art Project: doctors, nurses, PAs, NAs and EMTs. It is our hope that the art will convey the human lives and stories behind the statistics,” says Perlman. “This public tribute is especially poignant as many of the families were not allowed to have public funerals and the physical comfort of their loved ones during the lockdown.”
My Goal: “I think as a country we need to heal and reconnect after such a challenging time,” says Perlman. “From its inception, Arthouse.NYC has always connected beauty to its beholder, finding appreciation for the emerging and unknown artist. My hope is that the tiny house gallery can give back to the communities where these healthcare workers were from in love and art with therapeutic and healing programming.”
Advice for Other Women Entrepreneurs: “I have always been inspired by women who do not take no for an answer and make things happen on their own,” says Perlman. “I once had very close friends who owned a successful mosaic tile company. We were doing a fundraiser for the NYC Halloween Parade at the space I was running in Soho. I was in the beginning stages of running my own business, pretty much running on fumes. I was complaining that I was working very hard for very little money. My friend made the comment that one needs to separate themselves from the day-to-day business expenses and throw yourself at a worthwhile venture without expecting an immediate monetary return—because the eventual benefit and ripple effect will turn out to be so much more. She was right.”
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