Steve Brodner drew daily portraits of Covid victims for almost two years

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Steve Brodner sat in his art studio on the Upper West Side in the spring of 2020, taking in the obituaries while the whirring and screaming of late-night ambulances broke the city’s unsettling stillness. It all happened too fast.

Day after day, name after name, he couldn’t shake the feeling that Covid-19 victims were dying in waves too big to give proper credit. As lockdown dragged on, he thought, “We’re losing these people and they’re really important, even though most of them we’ve never heard of.”

So Brodner, an illustrator and political cartoonist, performed a personal act every day. He took up pen and brush to highlight one standout aspect of the coronavirus pandemic from the current news cycle – one face or event at a time.

Now his heartfelt portfolio of ink and color snaps is collected in the new book, Living & Dying in America: A Daily Chronicle 2020-2022 – a real-time reminder of how the pandemic has affected the best and worst of us during its time Has spawned first 22 months.

The book sheds light on sacrifice and support, disrespect and denial. And it accumulates a cumulative power as its human mosaic becomes more complicated. On the one hand you can see a medic who gets along with too little equipment; on the other hand, a politician seems to invent information that is in fact not well founded.

However, the spirit of the project was kindled by Kious Kelly.

Kelly, 48, was a nurse at Mount Sinai West Hospital in Manhattan who contracted the virus in March 2020. He is believed to be the first healthcare worker in New York to die from Covid.

When the artist read about Kelly, he was moved to create a tribute painting.

“This young man essentially gave his life to save his patients,” says Brodner. “According to his family, he just felt there was a real need to keep going to work — to be there for these sick people.”

Brodner began drawing from a photograph of Kelly. He then posted the artwork on his social media accounts. “I looked at it and thought, yeah, let’s do more.”

This exercise in daily documentation was a way for him to cope with the speed of the virus.

“When I first started doing this, I felt like time had stopped a little bit,” says the author over the phone from Manhattan. “I want to see their faces. I want to hear their stories. I want to hear their voices if possible.” (Disclosure: Brodner contributed art to the Washington Post.)

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The scope of the project would increase significantly, but Brodner gained momentum early on by keeping it simple. A few lines of ink. A few lines of prose.

The artist wanted every portrait he shared on social media to serve as a marker — as “a symbol of this life,” he says. “Like some kind of tombstone or a little commemorative card that you would put in a wall or a display.” Some of the victims’ relatives sent him letters of thanks.

But Brodner, 67, says much of his half-century career has been infusing his art with his trenchant perspective. As such, he increasingly drew other voices and messages that also reflected the pandemic era, particularly as he recognized that the US Covid response was showing ways in which “we are.” Not alltogether.”

In a Brodner portrait, a Houston medical worker describes having to tell some Covid patients, “I don’t have enough beds for you.” In another illustration, a woman at a Houston rodeo says about masking, “It’s offending against our constitutional rights. They shouldn’t be able to dictate what I wear.”

“Living & Dying” becomes particularly critical of leaders who have minimized the dangers of the pandemic or who resisted bans. “There are people who shouldn’t be let off the hook,” the artist says of such political responses to the virus that has killed more than 1 million Americans.

Brodner tried to hew physical and emotional truths. He has an initialism he uses when teaching his art students at New York’s School of Visual Arts: “DMIU”

“Don’t invent – I write that down on their papers,” says Brodner, underlining, “when you draw a face, you really have to look at the face.” He adds, “You step into that person’s world, consciously or unconsciously.”

This approach enhances his sense of artistic sympathy. In his studio or late at night at his dining table, he was overcome with sadness: “I sat and felt the loss.” He knew none of the victims he delivered, but he felt such a strong emotional bond that he had to cry. (Brodner, who is vaccinated and boosted, notes that neither he nor his acupuncturist wife have contracted Covid.)

When Brodner chose who to put in the spotlight, he was special stricken by the loss of a nurse, a cancer survivor boxing trainer, musicians and Nick Cordero, the Broadway actor who died in the summer of 2020 at the age of 41.

He created these portraits to connect and manage.

“That was the only reason I did it,” he notes, “because I felt it.”

He pauses for a moment and says, “I think that’s why we make art.”

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