Frontline Warriors mural raises funds for health care workers
In mid-March, when the coronavirus had started to stretch its fingers into New York City, artists Angela China and Sergio Barrale got a call. Their friend, a health care worker in the city, had tested positive for COVID-19.
They were left shaken, at the reality that their loved ones were being asked to put their lives and the lives of their families at risk. They felt frustrated and helpless. What could they do, under quarantine in an apartment? Then, they got an idea.
They hurried to Home Depot. After waiting in a line two blocks long, they came out with a large painting tarp and a stack of two-by-fours. With all of the art stores closed, they would have to build their own makeshift canvas.
Then, they started painting.
“We worked at a feverish pace,” Barrale recalled. “I piled the paint on my brush like ammunition, confidence in every stroke.”
The result is a huge mural that’s prompted tears and smiles from health care workers across New York City, and beyond. The 15-foot by 7-foot oil painting, named Frontline Warriors, depicts masked nurses and doctors locking arms, with a shimmering light at their backs. The artists’ exaggerated the workers’ hands, as if they’re wearing boxing gloves instead of medical gloves.
“The vision in my head was they would stand like they were in the Army, ready for battle,” China said. “Because this is a global fight, and they are on the frontlines fighting this invisible enemy.”
This is personal
Barrale and China had wanted to work on a project together since they started dating. Barrale came up through New York’s art gallery scene while China cut her teeth — and gained quite a following — through street art.
When the pandemic hit so close to home, it gave them a nudge — call it a shove, really — to get moving on a collaboration.
“This painting was a pivotal moment in my career,” Barrale said. “Where I worked equally with an artist on one canvas, sharing the decisions and responsibilities, which I had never done before.”
One of the women depicted in the mural is China’s mother, who works as a nurse in Baltimore. Another is Barrale’s brother, who works as an ER nurse in a hospital just outside of New York City.
The artists settled on a long, horizontal canvas, to pay homage to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, also a long landscape painting that’s a response to a crisis. Guernica was Picasso’s response to the bombing of the Spanish city of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.
“Like Guernica, this is a response painting, a response to suffering,” Barrale said. “This is our homage to the entire health care community, including all hospital workers, front desk staff and first responders. Because they are our soldiers, and we want to show our gratitude.”
Barrale and China installed the mural in the lobby of Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn late last month. They got to personally thank the men and women working who do not have the luxury of staying home, from the front desk and cleaning staff to the doctors.
“They loved it. Some were crying. It was definitely emotional,” China said. “We wanted to hug but of course couldn’t, which was hard.”
The artists do not want any payment for their work. Instead, they are asking people to donate to support medical workers through the website, frontlinewarriors2020.org. All donations will go directly to benefit those who have been hit the hardest by the coronavirus pandemic, through charitable foundations, specifically NYC Health + Hospitals, DonatePPE.org and DirectRelief.org.
Those who donate will receive a link to download a desktop wallpaper of the painting in a PDF format. You can also purchase prints and banners of the mural.
“Our goal is to raise as much money as possible by people who have been hit by this virus,” Barrale said.
Just the beginning
The two artists want Frontline Warriors to serve as a traveling exhibit, that medical workers can pass by coming in and out of hospitals. They are in talks with a medical group that owns nearly 40 hospitals in the New York City area. The mural will likely spend a month in one hospital before traveling to the next.
Installing the mural is no easy job, but Barrale and China are up to the task.
As China said, “The massive size of the canvas communicated the massive importance of the healthcare frontline workers & the inspiring dedication to the oath they have taken, putting their own lives on the line for us.”
Journalist and author Danielle Nadler grew up in South Dakota, where a patient writing teacher fostered in her a love for stories told well. She's worked for newspapers in the Midwest, on the West Coast and the East Coast, and recently launched a storytelling company called Tales and Ales.