Stay in the Loop
BSR publishes on a weekly schedule, with an email newsletter every Wednesday and Thursday morning. There’s no paywall, and subscribing is always free.
There was a moment in the summer of 2021 when artist RA Friedman thought his latest project was coming to a natural close. In August, he stepped away from his soft pencil leads and cycled 170 miles solo through southwest Pennsylvania. By the end of the summer, Friedman realized the moment was just that—a pause, not an ending.
Both massive and intimate
“I really thought that by this time, this year, we would be thinking about how we could finish up this memorial,” said Friedman, who, since July 2020, has focused his creative efforts on drawing portraits of Covid-19 victims. “Life is unexpected that way, I guess.”
Working from obituary and family photographs, Friedman and other artists who have joined his mission have drawn more than 150 portraits. The Trouble I’ve Seen (Covid-19 Portraits) explores the artistry of portraiture while also working to ensure those lost to the pandemic are remembered as more than a number.
Until recently, The Trouble I’ve Seen existed primarily online. This winter, commemorating two years since the start of the pandemic, the InLiquid Gallery in Philadelphia will display 14 of Friedman’s portraits in an exhibit curated by Amie Potsic. Friedman said he and Potsic selected portraits that spoke to them personally and collected a variety of images that represent people from across the US.
At once, the exhibit is both massive and intimate—not unlike the pandemic itself. “Small, almost jewel-like” framed portraits are grouped in rows, Friedman said, inviting viewers to spend time with the unnamed subjects. Throughout the gallery, four mesh screens hang, each one spotlighting a portrait enlarged to four-by-four feet.
Drawing to find connection
Friedman came to drawing in college but has spent much of his career focused on photography. He returned to his sketchbook in 2017 and found it as a way to feel connected during the early, isolated days of the pandemic.
He references both prolific draftsman Paul Cadmus and street artist Swoon when talking about the portraits and future directions for the project. Ultimately, the goal is to create a portrait that feels alive and celebrates a person.
“You want them to have a nice glow about them,” Friedman said.
This very strange time
It can be a challenge to bear witness, even though Friedman said he understands how to separate himself from the work. Sometimes, loved ones will contact him with stories of the person. “You do the job and you don’t let yourself get too emotionally entangled by it. And then you have one day where you’re looking at a portrait and burst into tears,” Friedman said.
Friedman recently found himself in another drawing break, taking the month of January to prepare for the exhibit. He expects to be drawing again soon and is also working on his technique as he prepares for portraiture workshops.
There may be future exhibits for The Trouble I’ve Seen and, for now, more portraits to be drawn. “It’s this very strange time,” Friedman said. “Everyone has one foot in and one foot out. Maybe the pandemic is ending, maybe it’s not.”
A virtual artist talk with RA Friedman will take place Thursday, February 24 at 6pm. InLiquid Gallery hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 12-6pm.
What, When, Where
The Trouble I’ve Seen: Drawings from the Covid-19 Portrait Project by RA Friedman. Through March 5, 2022, at the InLiquid Gallery at the Crane Arts Building, 1400 N. American Street, Philadelphia. (215) 235-3405 or inliquid.org.
Visitors are encouraged to make an appointment in advance by calling or scheduling online. Masks and proof of vaccination are required.
Sign up for our newsletter
All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.