By Ed Karvoski Jr., Culture Editor
Chelmsford/Lowell – Frontline nurses fighting the coronavirus became an inspiration for artist Laurie Simko of Chelmsford, who creates her artwork at Western Avenue Studios in Lowell. She painted portraits of 20 nurses, including her daughter, and titled the series “Thank You, Heroes.”
During April’s COVID-19 surge, Simko was inspired and comforted by a selfie she got from her daughter Shevaun Assini, a nurse at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen. Assini was pictured armed with personal protective equipment from a shipment that the hospital had recently received.
“She looked like a soldier going into battle,” Simko recalled. “I was relieved that she finally got her protective gear and thought it was a really powerful image. I had to paint it.”
Painting her daughter’s image motivated Simko to create a series of portraits to chronicle nurses’ valiant efforts. Assini provided photos of her colleagues outfitted with their PPE.
“I felt it was important to document this time,” Simko noted. “I also wanted to show my gratitude and thank them for their service.”
Simko communicated with the nurses via phone call or text. She ultimately posted their portraits on social media along with brief descriptions.
“I would ask if they could tell me a little about themselves,” she explained. “Some of them were hesitant; they’re not looking for the limelight. I told them that people really care about what they’re thinking and feeling. I felt it was a thoughtful process.”
A bonding between the nurses and artist further developed as Simko painted their portraits.
“I felt a very close empathy toward them,” Simko relayed. “I fell in love with their faces, which were mostly covered, so I really had to concentrate on their eyes. It made me feel very connected with them. I’m absolutely fascinated with the nurses’ whole world and what they do.”
Interacting with these nurses reaffirmed Simko’s admiration she already had for the profession based on her daughter’s dedication. Simko is particularly impressed how nurses assist patients whose families can only visit them virtually. As an example, Simko cited Assini holding an iPad at the bedside of a failing COVID patient who was in tears as he said goodbye to his adult children.
“I’m very proud of my daughter and I’m also a little fearful,” Simko acknowledged. “I was especially fearful during the surge when she didn’t have her protective gear. The pandemic is not over, so I’m always a little trepidatious about what she does. Nurses go through a lot.”
Assini is among the 20 nurses depicted with oil-on-canvas portraits in Simko’s “Thank You, Heroes” series. The artwork will be exhibited from March 6 to April 18, 2021, at the Brush Art Galleries & Studios in Lowell.
Additionally, Simko took part in ARTHOUSE.NYC’s “Hero Art Project,” a tribute to medical providers who lost their lives to COVID-19 worldwide. Artists were paired with families of healthcare workers.
ARTHOUSE.NYC paired Simko with the family of Dr. Arthur Friedman, a pioneer in urgent care medicine, who died April 30 of complications from COVID-19. Simko painted Friedman’s portrait and gave it to his family.
On Oct. 10, the “Hero Art Project” was shared publicly on a 30-foot digital billboard overlooking the 10,000 square-foot Big Screen Plaza on Sixth Avenue at 29th Street in NYC. Plans are underway to tour the exhibit outside of NYC.
The subject of Simko’s artwork in recent years was typically nature. She’s currently refocusing her artistic attention.
“This has certainly changed my focus,” she said of her recent projects. “I don’t have it all mapped out yet; I’m just going to let it grow. Right now, I’m responding to what’s going on around me and focusing more on aspects of the pandemic in my art.”