At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, responding to critical shortages of personal protection equipment (PPE) that continue to threaten the country, the art community stepped in to help: art handlers at the Whitney Museum donated equipment that could double as protective gear, while artists got to work making masks in their studios.
This week, a very different kind of shipment arrived at Interfaith Medical Center in Brooklyn: a truckload of 1,800 paintings made by Los Angeles-based artist Michael Gittes, one for every single worker. Nurses, doctors, janitors, security guards, dietary aids, and back office administrators were each gifted with their own artwork.
Titled Strangers to No One, the premise of the project was painting a flower for each employee at a hospital in New York City. Gittes tasked his studio manager, artist Eli Bronner, with finding one; the criteria was nonprofit hospitals with intensive care units (ICU) in underserved areas of the city. Interfaith in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood was besieged by cases at the height of the outbreak in New York City. On its worst day, its staff treated 116 COVID-19 patients.
The abstracted acrylic on canvas works were painted using a syringe, a technique Gittes has employed for years but has taken on a special significance for this series, forging a symbolic connection to healthcare workers.
Sheila Arthur Smith, who handles patient accounts at Interfaith and received one of Gittes’s paintings, views the work as a tribute to her sister, who died of COVID-19 complications.
“This picture that I’m holding is in memory of her,” she told local news channel ABC7.
Gittes’s message to the staff of Interfaith Medical Center, and all other hospital hospital or frontline workers, inspired the title: “We love you, everybody loves you. You’re loved by millions of people you’ll never meet. You’re not a stranger to anyone. These flowers are from everyone.”
Gittes’s project is in line with other generous art initiatives benefitting the medical community in the past months. The photography sale Pictures for Elmhurst, for instance, raised $1,380,000 for the hard-hit Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, allowing it to purchase additional PPE, ventilators, and other urgently-needed supplies.
Strangers to No One was financed by anonymous collectors, who purchased several of the artist’s flower paintings in order to support the donation.