Student artwork joins tribute to front lines

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Editor’s note: Visit the official Western COVID-19 website for the latest campus updates.

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She starts with the eyes.

For her, the eyes not only anchor the features of the face, but communicate the emotions resting within the subject. From there, she builds out. But she starts with the eyes – always – for one simple reason.

“The eyes,” Abbygale Shelley explained, “are what set us all apart.”

Perhaps then it is no surprise that the eyes are the most striking aspect of her most recent work, The Trenches of COVID-19. Posted to her personal Instagram page, the first-year Studio Fine Arts student has joined a global gallery of images celebrating the personal sacrifices of health-care workers.

Across social media, medical professionals around the world have been sharing photos of their weathered, bruised and battered faces after spending hours wearing protective masks and goggles while treating COVID-19 patients.

Accounts like covid_nurse on Instagram have been a warehouse for images and stories from the front lines – part catharsis, part visual reminder of the toll this epidemic is taking on its foot soldiers.

Submitted as a final project for a Studios Arts course, Shelley’s work was inspired by Manitoba-based Wanda Koop, who often connects her creations to world events. Shelley was struck by the relevance of a series of Koop pieces featuring the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris both before and after the 2019 fire.

“I wanted to play off of that idea but look at something impacting us now – COVID-19. It has been the ultimate life-changer around the globe,” Shelley said.

The Trenches was drawn from a photograph of an Italian nurse, a selfie posted to Instagram March 22, amid that country’s most trying hours. It has appeared across social and traditional media as one of the lasting images of this pandemic’s early days.

Favouring pencil and watercolour as mediums, Shelley combined the two interests, by starting with a pencil sketch of the nurse, then adding in a watercolour border to offer contrast. The colours are not simple random flare, but carefully chosen dominant blue and purple to represent the bruising on the face without being overt.

For Shelly, the scarring from masks and googles on the health-care workers faces might be the enduring symbols of this pandemic. “When I first saw those scars, I had to stop and take it in for a second. They show so much on their faces – just the pain from wearing it for that long,” she said.

With a goal of a career in museum curation, Shelley has had artistic asperations since high school, but her inspiration was closer to home. Her dad was a bit of an artist in his younger days; her grandfather was a draftsman. “It was a bit in my blood,” she said.

This work, along with all the images that inspired it, have a personal resonance for the London native, as well. For years, Shelley’s mother provided care in her home for the children of emergency room workers.

“They became like family to me,” Shelley said. “Now, I see how scared they are, how physically and emotionally exhausted they are, how they continue on despite a lack of supplies. Some have had to move out of their homes to keep their families safe.

“I wanted to do something powerful that people could feel and see what they are going through, so people could see the emotional and physically toll in their eyes.”