116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — As the world approaches two years in a pandemic, one new mural facing the MedQuarter puts a message in black and white for both health care workers and the community they care for.
As mask mandates fade, in-person events resume and the vaccinated population slowly grows, the war health care workers have fought on the front lines for 20 months is far from over inside hospitals. As the world longs to resume the life it knew before March 2020, health care workers return day after day to put on the same protective gear they’ve been toiling under for months.
“Visually, the pandemic is not very present any more in our communities. We think everything is fine and better,” said artist Isaac Campbell, the mural’s creator. “Then you take a step inside hospitals, and it’s absolutely not better.”
As health care workers continue to fight against an invisible enemy largely without the gratitude they received toward the beginning of the pandemic, the mural on the former Gazette building at the corner of Third Avenue SE and Fifth Street SE thanks them for their tireless sacrifice.
Commissioned in partnership with the Cedar Rapids Downtown District and Bex Hurn, owner of On View Gallery, the mural shows five health care workers from Mercy Medical Center and UnityPoint St. Luke’s in Cedar Rapids in their full protective gear — masks, shields, head coverings and protective gowns.
See the new mural honoring health care workers at the former Gazette building on the corner of Third Avenue SE and Fifth Street SE in downtown Cedar Rapids. The mural is on the rear, east-facing brick wall, which looks toward the MedQuarter.
Don’t wait to see this in person — this mural will fade over the next few months.
Though the image is larger than life, it’s impact will only be temporary due to the wheat-pasting technique chosen by the artist for symbolic reasons. Depending on how harsh the winter ahead is, the mural could last as little as two to three months.
“This is supposed to be something that says this period can be temporary. But are we making this period more permanent by not acting responsibly — by making choices focused on our own selves?” Campbell said. “We’re all hoping that this period for COVID and this period where health care workers are daily putting their lives on the line is temporary.”
He said the process of putting the mural up with help from community volunteers was more important than the longevity of the mural itself.
Wheat-pasting, something the layman can do on their stove at home, is a type of temporary art traditionally used in protests given its ease and speed of installation. Using flour, sugar and boiled water, a paste is made to press paper onto a wall, drying with a strong bond.
“During those moments of protest, it was important to get in, put your poster up and get out of there without getting caught,” the artist explained.
Paper was rolled onto the brick building’s glue-layered wall and quickly cured on Oct. 31. This mural, even with its size at 27 feet tall and 62 feet long, took about six hours to install.
The photographic image, installed in black and white to allow a sharper focus on the faces of the health care workers, adds intrigue by way of some anonymity — most of the workers in the mural remain anonymous by way of their protective equipment. The only doctor identifiable is Dr. Hassan Sajjad, a pulmonologist and primary critical care physician at Mercy shown wearing a clear shield.
“In the (intensive care unit) some days, we felt defeated. We didn’t see the progress we hoped for in our patients,” Sajjad said. “Other days, we hung onto small, little improvements. We really appreciate the gesture from the community.”
The new art’s concept was inspired by Campbell’s visit to Portugal to see his partner. In Portugal, reminders of the pandemic are everywhere, from COVID-19 test sites to masks to vaccine uptake.
Notably, the primary government official to address the public in Portugal through the crisis has been a military commander, who addresses the nation in full uniform.
“That was intentional because he thought it was necessary to inspire some urgency among the nation — that this was a conflict,” Campbell explained. “I went around and did research on the way we portray veterans and those in combat.”
The artist’s research on that found two key features: a focus on faces and a focus on equipment. Campbell applied those same focuses to health care workers fighting an active conflict with an invisible enemy.
“For the first time in any of our lives, we’ve all lived a shared experience — all 7 billion of us,” said Jesse Thoeming, executive director of the Cedar Rapids Downtown District, at the mural’s unveiling Monday. “For the last 20 months, a very, very small subset of our population has been on the front lines of this global battle against an invisible and deadly enemy. In all of history, arguably, never has so much been asked of so few.”
“Questions remain … but one thing that’s not unquestionable is the bravery and courage front line health care workers demonstrated during the pandemic,” said Dr. Dustin Arnold, chief medical officer of UnityPoint St. Luke’s. “Courage is not the absence of fear — it’s to act in its presence.”
With a lack of imagery from inside hospitals during the pandemic, Campbell said it can be hard to believe or remember what’s happening behind the walls of places like St. Luke’s or Mercy.
“We wanted to keep the recognition going. That was the whole thing,” Campbell said. “When we took photos (of health care workers), we solidified we’re doing the right thing by bringing attention to the ever-present danger as (they) have to go into work to suit up and protect themselves and their families.”
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