CLIFTON PARK -- Cuts and bruises aren’t details artists typically include in a portrait.
Yet for Steve Derrick, who has been depicting health care workers who have treated coronavirus patients, they’re the marks of heroes.
“That’s where the stress comes in as an artist, trying to make sure that you’re not capturing an idealized picture of them,” Derrick said. “If they have a bruise on their cheek or their eyes are bloodshot . . . you put all that in, so it’s documenting a time in history for them.”
Since mid-April, the Clifton Park resident has created 110 portraits of nurses and doctors around the world and given them to each subject free of charge. His efforts have led to an exhibition at the Albany Center Gallery and have made national headlines on CBS and CNN.
The idea for the portraits came while he was quarantining and transitioning to working from home (he’s the director of organizational development at the video game company Vicarious Visions).
“I needed something to keep me engaged. I’m a people person, and was struggling finding something to do other than sit around and watch Netflix. I came across an article from Time on nurses during COVID. It was just . . . wow. Those guys have a purpose, and I [wanted] to thank them,” Derrick said.
He painted the portraits of the nurses featured in the article and reached out to each via Instagram to see if they wanted the works.
“Then it just exploded after that,” Derrick said.
The artist began receiving requests from nurses in coronavirus hotspots such as Italy and later New York City. Each portrait request came with a photo and a story about the health care worker’s experiences. Some nurses told Derrick about how gut-wrenching it was to have their patients die alone in the hospital because family members were not allowed to visit.
Others told him about the incredibly long hours they worked and the lack of protective equipment. One even said she’d been using shoe covers in place of hairnets because the hospital had run out.
Nurses who worked in New York City told him about the trucks that would come to the hospitals to pick up the deceased.
“It’s not just like a hearse that comes to pick up one person at a time and takes them to the mortuary. These are big trucks that would come in,” Derrick said, “That’s like stuff that’s in movies.”
With each request, Derrick incorporates the subject's story into the portrait, conveying their pain and experiences through their expressions.
The project has been a new challenge for Derrick. Though he has a fine-arts degree, he’d only drawn or painted intermittently prior to the pandemic.
“It’s definitely given me purpose,” Derrick said.
He typically paints at least one portrait a day, and each takes between three and four hours. However, in preparing for “Portraits of the Pandemic,” his recent exhibition at the Albany Center Gallery, he completed roughly three a day.
“During [those] two weeks before the show I did about 30 paintings, so it was like having two full-time jobs,” Derrick said.
Many of the portraits in the exhibition depicted local health care workers such as Michele Hanna, a registered nurse at Albany Medical Center, and Trish Ford, a Saratoga County hospice doctor.
While Derrick corresponds with the health care workers he paints via social media, he rarely gets to meet them. Hanna was an exception.
The two met at the Albany Center Gallery last month and the meeting was shown on CBS’ “On the Road with Steve Hartman.” During the segment, Hanna was stunned by the portraits, including her own.
"These are amazing. It's the most beautiful thing anyone has ever done for me," she said.
Reactions like hers are why Derrick continues the project.
“That’s the best part. If it was just ‘Oh, thanks’ and that was it, I may not be still as into it as I am. But you’ll get, ‘My whole family just saw this and we’re all crying.' It’s amazing,” Derrick said.
At this point he has about 80 requests for portraits, many of them from health care workers in Brazil, Texas and Arizona.
“The interesting thing is that it kind of went by hotspots. Earlier, I started getting a bunch from Italy and then I got a couple in the UK and then Spain ... and then a lot in New York,” Derrick said. “Now that they’ve gone back and New York’s doing well, I’m seeing it come from Texas and Arizona and Florida ... and from Brazil.”
While he’s not sure how long the project will last, Derrick said the goal is to highlight the health care workers who have gone above and beyond to help others during the pandemic.
“Look [at] how heroic these people are. They’re putting in time and time again all this energy and effort, and on top of that they’re hearing all this stuff that’s going on in the media. . . . I’d like to put some spotlight on how amazing all these guys are,” Derrick said.