In March, the UK locked down the country to contain the spread of COVID-19. For many this led to a heightened period of dread and anxiety, but also creativity and heroism. During lockdown artist Tom Croft created #portraitsforNHSheroes to galvanize artists across the country to celebrate workers on the frontline. Tom collaborated with the charity Paintings in Hospitals to give the collection a more permanent home, as it closely aligns with the values and ethos of their mission to improve health through art. As a result of the collaboration, Google Arts & Culture created an online exhibition of over 700 contemporary portraits that were submitted as part of Tom’s #portraitsforNHSheroes initiative.
Sandra Bruce-Gordon, director of Paintings in Hospitals spoke to artist Tom Croft about the exhibition and their collaboration.
We know that art can help meet challenges in health and social care around ageing, loneliness and mental health. What will be the main benefit of the exhibition for our audiences?
I hope it gives the frontline workers a sense of how valued they are and how indebted we feel toward them. I wanted to raise their status through portraiture as this crisis has really highlighted and reminded everyone of their critical work. If the exhibition can help artists, healthcare workers or the audience process this appalling time, then that will be a good thing.
You must be really proud of what you and the other artists have achieved. How do you think this exhibition will be received?
Firstly, I am so grateful to Paintings in Hospitals and Google Arts & Culture for creating this space and a permanent record for these amazing NHS portraits. I hope everyone will take the time to view this virtual exhibition, which at the moment is the best way to get the widest and most inclusive audience for an exhibition. I am super excited for it to launch and proud of what everyone has achieved.
For me, the portraits get behind the anxiety and stress that the frontline workers must have been feeling. I hope the exhibition will help improve communication between patients and carers. What were the relationships between artists and frontline workers like?
Since we couldn’t meet up with our subjects, we based the portraits on images sent over social media. Some artists worked from video call sittings, so we all had to be flexible in our practices. I asked my subject Harriet lots of very direct questions about her experience on the frontline. She was so generous to share her thoughts and feelings with me and we got to know each other well pretty quickly. I know from hearing from other artists that the bond between artist and sitter, forged in this unusual and very emotional set of circumstances, was really strong. Tears were shed on both sides when the portraits were revealed.
This exhibition will be a fitting record and snapshot of an unbelievably hard time for everyone, and how ordinary people in extraordinary times became heroes. What do you think, Tom?
Absolutely. I know that lots of healthcare workers are uncomfortable with the label of “hero.” We aren’t suggesting they are superhuman or haven’t been profoundly affected by this devastating global pandemic, but their selfless actions to risk their physical and mental health on a daily basis for our benefit is absolutely heroic. We need to now care for them and can’t thank them enough.