A few hours at a time over the course of a week, artist Adrian Collazo created an image on canvas that will immortalize for generations, the selfless dedication, grit, guts and determination of America’s health care workers who were pushed to their limits in the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic.
“COVID-19 Healthcare Warriors” is Collazo’s heartfelt depiction of the men and women on the front lines painted in April,,a few weeks into the pandemic – just as the virus began its destructive shredding of everyday life, customs and traditions in New Jersey, across the country and around the world.
The 24-by-36 brightly-colored canvas, with five health care workers dressed in their scrubs and face masks embodies the camaraderie, teamwork and closeness of the hospital workers, all of whom endured long hours and daily exposure to the virus.
“The colors are loud, to give that energy, that power that attention they should get,” Collazo explained.
Locally, the epicenter of the battle was at 110 Rehill Ave., the sprawling campus of RWJUH/Somerset where 2,200 health care professionals are on duty 24/7 365 days a year.
It’s also where Collazo had worked for eight years in materials management when the hospital operated as Somerset Medical Center, prior to its merger with the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital system. He was also born there, as were his two daughters. He grew up in Bound Brook and recently moved to Somerville.
“I guess when I was quarantining I was a little bit stir crazy,” Collazo said. “I was following the news to see how things were going when I realized how risky it is to be a nurse or a doctor; I mean, they’re right next to that virus, not certain what their future is, it’s just one of the most amazing things,” Collazo said.
“I wanted to portray them as superheroes; that’s how I see them, their strength, so powerful.”
When he had completed the painting, he posted the powerful image on social media pages; his intent was not to sell, but several offers were made, one of which intrigued the artist.
The eventual purchaser told him that the painting deserved a place of honor, and shouldn’t hang on someone’s living room wall; instead, it should be presented as a gift to Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital/Somerset, which had been the epicenter of the ongoing battle against the coronavirus for months, Collazo said.
The purchaser gifted the painting to the Somerville non-profit Arts on Division whose stated mission is to promote the arts, culture and humanity not only in Somerville, but also Somerset County.
AOD representatives and Collazo visited the hospital yesterday to present the painting to Tony Cava, president and CEO of RWJUH/Somerset and other hospital officials.
“It felt good to be able to share my vision and appreciation for them,” Collazo said.
Rick St. Pierre, AOD co-founder and trustee, said the painting symbolizes AOD’s connection to Somerville, and by extension, the hospital and relationships with the borough.
“They’re not just heroes, they’re superheroes,” St Pierre said of Collazo’s painting. “That was his interpretation, his feeling of the moment as an artist, that these health care workers, nurses, doctors, were taking care of us, true superheroes, long before that term became popularized.”. . .
St. Pierre invited Somerset County Freeholder Brian Gallagher to the presentation. The former mayor of Somerville, who lives in the morning shadow of the hospital, was instrumental in conceiving Division Street as a pedestrian mall and center for the arts in Somerville, a vision that continues to unfold.
The transformation of Division Street also led to the formation of AOD. Deidre Rosinski, AOD president, and Susan Antin, AOD vice president, participated in the presentation of the painting.
“Arts on Division saw the genius of Collazo; he’s an empath, sensitive and his work provided the opportunity to connect Somerville and the hospital through our perfect advocate, the former mayor, now freeholder and the opportunity to recognize the true superheroes in our community,” St. Pierre said.
From the crisis came a recognition throughout the community of the hospital staff’s refusal to give in – an impromptu drive-by parade of cars in front of the hospital showered the staff with gratitude; a wholesale florist donated a 24-foot box truck full of Easter flowers, and a grass-roots Somerville organization raised over $30,000 to purchase meals from local restaurants for delivery to the hospital staff and first responders.
“I dont know that people prior to COVID-19 really understood the level of commitment health care workers have,” Gallagher said. “What the pandemic did was bring out the best in people and on all sides of this,” he added. “Now people recognize the level of care, the level of concerns and the level of humanity that our health care workers have.” .
Pausing to admire Collazo’s painting, Gallaghe added, “You take a look at it, it shows strength, commitment and caring; for it to be displayed in the medical center, it means that now, for every employee to walk by, it will be recognition for them of what they did. They can reflect on what happened then, and derive strength from it if something like it happens again.”