Main Street Exhibit Offers “Behind the Mask: COVID-19”
There’s a new exhibit along Einstein’s Main Street, featuring watercolor portraits created by Wilma Bulkin Siegel, M.D., a retired member of the Einstein faculty and pioneering physician in palliative care at Montefiore. Dr. Bulkin Siegel’s “Behind the Mask: COVID-19” aims to celebrate the heroes on the frontline who are caring for those stricken with COVID-19 while also exploring how the virus has affected these healthcare professionals and how they think about life.
The exhibit originally appeared at Montefiore, in connection with its fine art program. Those in the exhibit on the Moses campus and along our Main Street celebrate caregivers at Montefiore, some of whom also are on the Einstein faculty.
“Today’s essential frontline workers are my heroes,” said Dr. Bulkin Siegel, who at 83 must self-isolate to keep safe from exposure to the SAR-CoV-2 germs that cause COVID-19. “Their altruism has been inspiring, and I wish to honor them for the courage they have displayed as they work to save others.”
Jodi Moise, director of Montefiore Medicine's Fine Art Program and Collection, originally curated an exhibit of the portraits at Montefiore's Moses campus. She noted, "Dr. Bulkin Siegel's vision to create portraits and visual narratives featuring 10 Montefiore frontline health professionals who were directly involved in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic resonated with me. Their portraits and testimonies are important to share with the Montefiore Einstein community, offering a deeply personal, inside perspective of their individual experiences."
Healing through Medicine and through Art
Dr. Bulkin Siegel enjoyed a distinguished career as an oncologist and palliative care specialist. She established one of the first hospices in New York State, which was among the first to accept AIDS patients.
She recalled, “My work as a physician in palliative care and oncology in the 1970s and 1980s was all about touch and feel and comfort. My palliative mission with patients put me face-to-face with the horrors of the worst diseases of the times—cancer and AIDS. I was passionate about caring for, consoling, and giving comfort to my patients in whatever way I could.
One of the ways that she sought to bring patients comfort was by integrating art with medicine. Following her retirement in 1990, she combined medicine with her love of painting. “Behind the Mask…” is the latest art project that Dr. Bulkin Siegel has embarked upon since retiring.
Her preferred medium is watercolors and subject is portraits; she also has explored those with HIV/AIDS, military veterans who have returned from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Holocaust survivors and liberators, Muslim women in America, and second-, third-, and fourth-generation descendants of Holocaust survivors. For her series of portraits featuring people living with AIDS, Dr. Bulkin Siegel received the Janice Palmer Award of the Society of Arts in Healthcare, the highest honor given in the field of arts in healthcare. (You can view her complete body of work on her website.)
An Innovative Approach to Portraiture
For her earlier projects, Dr. Bulkin Siegel met with, interviewed, and photographed her portrait subjects. But that was before COVID-19 altered our lives this past year.
She said, “We thought 2020 was going to be a special year, a time to focus on having clear vision. As things came into focus, though, the only thing clear was that we were facing one of the worst pandemics in history.”
In spite of the obstacles posed by the pandemic, Dr. Bulkin Siegel wanted to do something to honor the brave frontline healthcare professionals who were risking their lives to save others. With direct personal contact inadvisable as well as impossible—Dr. Bulkin Siegel lives in Florida—for this exhibit she conducted her interviews with those whom she would paint by phone and via Zoom.
That helped her to maintain safe social distancing while getting to know those she would paint. She also asked them each to send her videos and photographs so that she could see them from varying angles, thereby providing the perspectives she would need to paint their portraits.
She noted, “So I could understand their narratives, I asked them to record their thoughts on what they have learned about their lives, and about the life force. Each “hero” in the exhibit has a corresponding video that can be viewed on Montefiore’s Fine Art website highlighting Dr. Bulkin Siegel’s artwork.
Reflecting on the ways in which the novel coronavirus has affected us, Dr. Bulkin-Siegel said, “Our isolation has forced us to communicate virtually, through technology, which deprives us of in-person contact and touch. The masks we wear for our protection hide who we are, further isolating us from others emotionally. And, we are social beings, so this separation ’goes against the flow‘ for us. Yet our masks force us to establish eye contact; that connection and our language skills are how we know one another as individuals now.”
She added, “The individual stories of these healthcare professional demonstrate “we,” rather than “me,” and I am ever grateful to them for welcoming me into their own worlds.”
Editor’s Note: If you’re unable to view the exhibit at the College of Medicine you can still see the portraits and view the corresponding videos. You also can view the Einstein exhibit portraits in the gallery below.
Posted on: Tuesday, February 09, 2021