If numbers tell a story, the pencil lines in artist RA Friedman’s black-and-white sketches tell a life.
“I wanted to, as much as I could, really look into the photograph and really make the portrait feel as if it were lifelike,” said Friedman, explaining the mission behind his project The Trouble I’ve Seen (COVID-19 Portraits).
Keeping the memory
Based on obituary photos and family submissions, Friedman and a handful of other artists are creating a gallery of Philadelphians lost to COVID-19. The sketches give glimpses into the lives of the victims, even while the names and life details are excluded.
Friedman began the project when, he said, his work started to feel “maybe not as relevant” the longer he isolated inside his Naval Square studio and home. When more than 1,200 deaths had been reported in Philadelphia county, he started researching obituaries of coronavirus victims online.
Philadelphia has reported more than 1,700 as of July 24.
A self-described introvert, Friedman drew the initial portraits himself before announcing the project, attempting to create vibrant images often based on small, grainy obituary photos. He has completed 17 so far, spending an average of four to five hours on each.
“You want the drawings to be as impactful on their own as possible, but the drawing itself is not the important thing. It's the time, it's the consideration” that is important, Friedman said. “I really feel like I've almost lived with the people that I'm drawing.”
Art that hits home
The project is fitting for Friedman’s artistic background. He moved to Philadelphia from New York City following graduate school and found himself working exclusively in photography for many years despite his education in drawing and painting. He returned to drawing recently—in part, he said, because he felt it better captured the emotions of the current political climate.
“A lot of what art is about is transcending things that are painful, that are not necessarily happy, and this is about as unhappy as it gets, this is the loss of life on a grand scale and, at least in my opinion, so much of it needlessly,” Friedman said.
Families can contact Friedman through his website with a portrait request, and he said he will try to complete as many as requested. He is also looking for artists to volunteer their talents and accepting donations to cover costs. Someday, he said, he envisions the portraits being displayed in a public art show or hosting a series of workshops during which families learn to draw the portraits themselves.
If a family does request a portrait over email, Friedman will ask if they feel comfortable sharing something about the person.
“I had one person tell me something very, very poignant recently,” Friedman said. “It's hard, you know, because how do you sum up a life? But one person said, 'He was the kind of person who really loved life and lived it to the fullest.’ And that's like—oh, you just want to cry.”
What, When, Where:
The Trouble I’ve Seen (COVID-19 Portraits) can be viewed online at RA Friedman’s website and on the project’s Facebook page. Families of coronavirus pandemic victims can also contact the artist through his website to request a portrait.