Art Exhibit to Honor Faces of COVID Victims

RA Friedman in his studio. (Courtesy of RA Friedman)

Like most people, RA Friedman was mostly stuck at home due to COVID in June 2020.

Except Friedman didn’t cope with Netflix binge sessions or Zoom happy hours.

Instead, the Philadelphia artist started drawing detailed pictures of local people who died from COVID.

Friedman spent hours surfing the internet, finding the images and backstories of the deceased on and in area newspapers. Then he spent hours more in his studio, honoring these people in the best way he knew how — by sketching them with enough detail to emphasize their humanity. And then by sharing the sketches online through a Facebook page.

Now, almost two years into the pandemic, the Jewish artist is still drawing, and his portraits will be featured in a show at InLiquid at 1400 N. American St.

From Feb. 4 to March 5, Friedman’s portraits will hang in the nonprofit’s visual art space. Called “The Trouble I’ve Seen: Drawings from the COVID-19 Portrait Project,” the exhibit will show four drawings as oversized mesh prints, 14 others as framed pictures and a wall installation of the other 155 portraits.

Names will not be revealed. Also, in 2022, Friedman has expanded the project to include people from across the United States.

“There was a lot of suffering,” he said. “I felt, what can I do as an artist for the community?”

The artist was quick to point out that he didn’t craft all the images. He did about 78 of them, while the rest were contributed by artists Friedman connected with online during the project.

“Basically, all of them will be up,” the artist said.

Friedman used to get a part-time salary from the University of Pennsylvania for overseeing the Robert and Molly Freedman Jewish Sound Archive in Penn Libraries. But after the pandemic broke out, his 20-hour a week position went away.

He still manages the Yiddish music archive but not in an official capacity. Luckily, he is getting some help on his bills now that his job is gone, but for the most part, he’s fine in that area.

Friedman is not getting paid for the art gallery, either. As the artist explained it, he doesn’t want to profit off of people’s pain.

The longtime Philadelphia resident, 62, is drawing the likenesses of real people, not fictional characters. It is just his intention to make viewers feel them as individuals, like he did as he was drawing them.

And if viewers feel this in the same way, they will see the pandemic as more than just a news story defined by numbers, like cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Instead, they will see it as a human tragedy.

“I thought about the people, and felt like I started to know them,” Friedman said. “Their energy rubbed off on me.”

One guy was a salesman or Realtor, Friedman can’t quite remember. But while he was drawing the guy, the artist imagined him as “a really good father,” he said. Then Friedman looked up the man’s full obituary and learned that he was right.

This happened over and over throughout the process.

“You really do start to feel like you’ve hung out with them,” Friedman said.

It’s possible he needed that himself. He’s a retiree from a career in nonprofits and not-for-profits, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, with no spouse or kids.

Friedman said his living situation used to “just be me and the cat.”

“Now it’s just me,” he added.

The artist is spending most of his time in his studio, prioritizing, as he put it, quality over quantity.

A portrait by RA Friedman. (Courtesy of RA Friedman)

But soon, his gallery, his creations and his new acquaintances will bring people together. The artist has done exhibits in the past but none of this magnitude.

“Some of the families have seen it on the Facebook page. I’m hoping they’ll come out to see it,” he said.

Amie Potsic, a Berwyn-based art adviser who has known Friedman for years, was instrumental in putting the show together.

When Friedman showed her the project, she was so impressed that she wanted to bring it to a bigger audience.

“Philadelphia is searching for a memorial,” Potsic said.

So, Potsic reached out to a contact who runs InLiquid, Rachel Zimmerman. And Zimmerman was interested.

“There’s been so much loss that we need to look back and remember people,” she said.

Throughout the show, InLiquid will be open Wednesday-Saturday from noon-6 p.m. Entry is free, but masks and vaccinations are required.

After the exhibit, Potsic may work with Friedman on turning it into a book.

“Books last,” she concluded.

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