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The Art of Remembering: Yale’s COVID-19 Memorial Art Project

October 18, 2022
by Jane E. Dee

Yale faculty member Ben Doolittle, MD, MDiv, holds what he calls a renaissance conversation with someone new each month. He started these conversations about eight years ago, he said, as a spiritual discipline and a way to get to know people. “It's really opened my eyes to all the neat people here at Yale. I've met so many interesting people,” Doolittle said.

A professor of medicine (General Internal Medicine) in the Department of Internal Medicine at Yale School of Medicine, and professor of religion and health at Yale Divinity School, Doolittle is believed to be Yale’s first full professor with a joint appointment at the medical and divinity schools. In December 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Doolittle read an article about the inaugural Innovation fellow at Yale Schwarzman Center and Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking at Yale, the artist Ye Qin Zhu, who had recently received his MFA from Yale School of Art. Doolittle had already begun to think about creating a COVID-19 memorial at Yale and was struck during his research into the 1918 flu pandemic by the lack of a national memorial to the millions of people who had died.

“Between 50 and 100 million people died, and we just moved on,” Doolittle said. “I feel that now, with COVID, we're moving on,” he added. “It's a national forgetting, and we're doing it again. And maybe that's OK; maybe that's what we do with tragedy -- we get through it and we move on. But I like the idea of artwork being a pause or a reflection piece.”

The COVID Memorial Artwork that he and Zhu worked on together is scheduled to be on view by the end of November on the Boardman Wall outside the Department of Internal Medicine office at the entrance of the Boardman Building on the Yale School of Medicine campus.

Art Emerges from Community Trauma

Doolittle was impressed that Zhu had recently co-designed a memorial for individuals affected by COVID-19 in New Haven through The Design Brigade, a joint initiative of Yale’s Center for Collaborative Arts & Media and the New Haven-based architecture firm, Atelier Cho Thompson.

Zhu also was attracted to the project. “There was a lot of pain and hurt during the pandemic, especially because there were two very different sides -- a side where people were going about their daily lives, as disrupted as it was, but feeling pretty comfortable with what's going on. And a side where your whole life was just turned upside down,” Zhu said.

Doolittle and Zhu interviewed people at Yale New Haven Hospital and the Saint Raphael Campus, referring to the process as a transect, a term from anthropology that Doolittle described as a walk to record everything you see. They visited Smilow Cancer Center, the emergency room, and watched through an ICU window as nurses and doctors cared for the sickest COVID patients. They also talked to cafeteria workers and hospital custodians.

“We interviewed more than 100 people, spending hours on the wards with nurses, physicians, case managers, respiratory therapists, students, physician assistants and nurse practitioners,” Doolittle said. “Special attention was paid to those whose voices are not often heard – maintenance staff, food service workers, and folks on the night shift. We asked questions: ‘Describe the pandemic in your own words?’ ’Pick one word to describe what has happened?’ 'How would you want to feel standing before a work of art about the pandemic?’ We gathered ideas. We prototyped designs. We pondered together what this experience has been like for us as a community.“

A small marble chip that fell off a Cedar Street building on the medical school campus found its way into the artwork, as did a COVID test kit. Doolittle, director of the Internal Medicine-Pediatrics Residency Program, shared prototypes of the memorial with his resident physicians.

Several themes emerged:

· Embrace. Health care workers were unable to touch one another or their patients except while wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE became political, with strong feelings about wearing masks in public. The artwork is made from recycled PPE.

· Breath. Due to the infection, people struggled to breathe and to catch their breath. The artwork includes a sensor that will activate lights when you pass by to evoke a sensation of deep breathing.

· Reconciliation. A strong feeling of resolution emerged from the interviews. The piece is meant to evoke the embrace of a river, which cleanses and raises us up.

At first glance, you might not recognize that the COVID Memorial Artwork is made with PPE, but then you see the shredded material and color patterns. “You'll notice that the artist is attempting to transform symbols that were glaringly obvious during the pandemic into a different message that was hopeful,” Zhu said.

The Department of Internal Medicine at Yale School of Medicine is among the nation's premier departments, bringing together an elite group of clinicians, investigators and educators in one of the world's top medical schools. To learn more, visit Internal Medicine.

Submitted by Jane E. Dee on October 18, 2022