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Faces of COVID Victims on Display in Special Library Project

A special exhibition at the Kenton County Public Library's William E. Durr branch in Independence is bringing a focus to the lives lost here during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Christian Schmit, a programmer at the library who is also an artist, proposed the idea. The library reached out to its patrons earlier this year and asked them to share a photo of a loved one who died from the virus along with a short bio.

The result is a series of portraits and stories now on display.

"Sometimes it feels so huge that you don't even know where to turn, with Covid, and the pandemic," said Katelyn Wolary, one of the 22 artists who turned the pictures into portraits. "And this brings it down to a level that  we all can understand. We all can feel like we're giving something that is beneficial and positive."

There are twenty-four portraits drawn by the artists. The people who responded were mostly from Northern Kentucky, but Library Director Faith Mulberry said they had people respond from as far away as Italy.

The 24 portraits are on display at the Durr branch of the library through August 6.  

The project had an impact on the people whose loved ones died, as well as the artists who delved into the lines of the face, and the smile, and the few sentences that defined the living, breathing person in the photograph.  

"Art does something that the numbers can't," said Ron Prigat, another of the artists, "which is to give you a personal sense of the loss, and people's experience."

A short film was also made, documenting two of the people whose picture is included among those on the wall. The film is called  The Covid Portrait Project.

Susan Kinsella wanted her husband Scott to be included. She mentioned that he had several bird feeders that he continually kept stocked. He loved to feed the birds, she said, and she knows the birds miss him. Kinsella said Scott was devoted to his family, and was crazy about his sons.

Prigat was the artist who drew Scott's portrait. He said he could see from his picture that Scott was smiling from the inside out, and there was so much he could tell from that smile.

"Capturing the spirit is very powerful," said Prigat. "People say, for good reason, that the eyes are the window to the soul. So you want to get the eyes right. But there's more than just technique there, because the intent is not necessarily, not for me personally, to reproduce a photograph, but to create something different, and to capture something essential."

Bonnie Yates described Jim Hunt as a companion, a grandfather who was known as Pop, and someone who had ALS in addition to Covid. 

Wolary was the artist who drew Jim's portrait.

"I can just tell he was a good person," she said. "Like, you can see it in the way he was smiling and the way that they had their arms around each other. You can just feel that kind of positivity."

"He never complained, he never said 'poor me', or asked why was this happening to him," Yates said. "He just took it day by day, that's the way we lived."

She said he was really just a wonderful man, and she thought he would be so surprised that his picture was hanging in the exhibition.

Robin Klaene, public relations and development director at the library, said this project was done at no cost to the participants in order to help those who are suffering a huge loss.

"A photo is wonderful, but the artists' portraits bring a whole new feeling to both the artist and the loved one," she said. "Now until the first week of August all the portraits are on display in a quiet lounge area at the Durr Branch. With the art is a short bio on each person that takes you back to a happier time. It really is an amazing project."

See images from the exhibition online here.

Written by Patricia A. Scheyer, RCN contributor

Image: Raymond Wallace, as drawn by Marylin Wilson. Wallace died of COVID-19 in January. He lived in Covington for all his 72 years except for during his time in the military.