Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Gratitude: Laura Chasman

Laura Chasman, Ediri.  2007-2008
Laura Chasman, Gratitude,  2007-8 Posted to Facebook: April, 2020 gouache paintings on museum mounting board, each 12 x 11”

Artist Statement: Nurses and Nursing Assistants.  I came to know these nurses and nurse’s aides while working as a social worker in a nursing home in the Mission Hill district of Boston. They are part of a larger series I painted in 2007-2008.  How relevant these portraits are today, as we experience this global pandemic. Where would we be without these healers and caretakers? 

Over the course of the ten years I worked in this setting I came to know many of the nurses and aides quite well. I knew about their personal lives, and I observed the ways in which they carried out their daily tasks, their moods, the uniforms they wore, as well as their strength and endurance to do their jobs. Nurses- giving out medications, injections, setting up and administering i.v.’s, feeding tubes, medicating, and bandaging bedsores, and their interminable paper work, documenting every aspect of care and observation, while nurse’s aides attended to the daily care of the residents- showering, toileting, incontinence care, combing their hair, and feeding those who could no longer feed themselves, making up their beds. The capacity to offer compassion, the patience to go slowly with people who can no longer act and move efficiently, is a gift not all possess, and at this moment in time, I am filled with gratitude.

Pamela Allara:
Laura Chasman’s work occupies an interesting niche within the genre of contemporary portraiture. Although the genre as a whole may be considered a bit ‘old fashioned,’ as Alice Neel commented many years ago, it maintains a vital presence in contemporary art, no doubt because the human face will always retain its fascination as a reflection of one’s times. In general, the works of her peers, whether Elizabeth Peyton, Chantal Joffee or Maria Lassnig, continue and extend the expressionist tradition, one that emphasizes psychic instability or insecurity. Although until her retirement she was a clinical social worker, Chasman does not pretend to delve into her subjects’ psyches to expose its hidden recesses; rather, she uses the sensitivity to facial expression and body language she has gained as both a health care professional and an artist to extend an invitation to the viewer to become acquainted with a stranger. Collectively, the portraits speak to tolerance and acceptance, and significantly, to the importance of taking the time to become acquainted with others with whom you cross paths, if only in order to better understand ourselves.

Laura Chasman, Gloria, 2007-2008
For the most part, each portrait introduces us to a person Chasman has come to know well, either through work or family. On April 17, Chasman posted on Facebook 4 portraits from her 2007-8 “Nurses and Nurses Assistants” series with a one-word description: “Gratitude.” Since the start of the pandemic, both average citizens with homemade signs and major media outlets have expressed a similar sentiment in general terms, but these portraits bring us into immediate contact with those on the front lines. The women are professionals she knew when working at the Benjamin Nursing Home on Mission Hill in Boston over a decade ago, but they are assuredly representative the current medical community nation-wide.

One of the nurses, Ediri, is dressed in scrubs and so is easily identified as a medical professional., whereas only after seeing the stethoscope around Chantal’s shoulders can we assume she is a nurse. Both Gloria, in a teddy bear-patterned shirt, and Mabel, in scrubs, are nurses aides. It is important that their clothing is not an indication of status; they are simply professionals working together to save lives.

Laura Chasman, Mabel, 2007-2008
In all cases, the women are posed so that they address us directly, as unique individuals first, and then as representative of the roles they play in society. Placed against a plain ground rather than in a hospital setting, we do not experience the anxiety that such a setting can induce.  Gloria, Ediri, Chantal and Mabel are off duty, so to speak, so we can meet them one on one.

The vivid personalities we confront in these portraits demonstrates how much we lose in terms of human experience when we are removed from face-to-face interaction as we are at present. We certainly do feel gratitude for the tireless work of health care professionals during this crisis, but Chasman’s portraits also bring to the surface the sadness that enforced isolation has caused.

Laura Chastman, Chantal, 2007-8
Mark Auslander:  Looking at these heart warming works, I do find myself thinking of the history of portraiture in Boston, including works hung in places of honor in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. For generations, these images celebrated the city's elite, including those who might have been founders or patrons of the city's hospitals and orphanages, rendering the actual workers essentially invisible, at best glimpsed in the shadowy background. How important that these women, in contrast, were honored for the important work that they performed more than a decade ago, and that they now return to the light, as it were, , when we are across the world so conscious of how much we owe to all frontline health workers.  Even now, we must not forget, nearly of these individuals labor without adequate compensation, sick leave or medical insurance; they may be the safety net for the more privileged among us, but they themselves are deprived of the social safety net that should be every person's fundamental human right.

Laura believes that three out of four of these women were born overseas. Ediri's name suggests her background is Igbo, from southeastern Nigeria, and Chantal and Mabel are probably from Haiti. At a time when the Trump administration is engaged in a fullscale war against immigration, it is so important to remember, through art, the vital roles played by immigrants in health care and so many othe fields. In the now immortal words of the musical Hamilton, "Immigrants, we get the job done!"

Having said that, there is something deeply haunting about the portraits, in the midst of our plague year.  Reading every day of the infection rates in nursing homes and other congregate facilities, one shudders to think what these women and their colleagues may see every day, as many of their patients face the prospect of serious illness and death alone, without the presence of their loved ones.  The faces immortalized here, on the faces of their colleagues, may be the very last thing Covid-19 patients may ever see. They remind us of the best of humanity, at such a terrible time of peril, a time that more responsible and compassionate social and public health policy could largely have mitigated.

These faces look out at us from a different time, but, seen through our current eyes, they gaze with the fierce urgency of now: what will we all do to protect them, and their charges, as the crisis unfolds? 

Susan Platt: Thank you Laura Chastman for these portraits and for your statement. They fill me with both awe and a great sadness. We wonder where these women are today. The first thing I see is their dignity. They stand facing us, looking at us, and we feel their own strength as they do that. The fact that Laura knew them is crucial to the portrait relationship and gives them a deeper presence, that of their personal day to day empathy for others. Empathy is so crucial today, and I think we are all feeling it especially for those who are losing loved ones whom they cannot touch. But we outside the medical community do not feel it close up, necessarily. We do not feel it physically. We know that the medical people serving in hospitals are feeling that every minute of every day. It is hard to believe that they do not have the protection they need. These women, pre virus, did not need to cover up from head to toe in plastic, a very uncomfortable situation that reduces physical and emotional contact. We are reminded of that new reality as we look at these women in scrubs, but we also know that caregivers today, in spite of their coverings, and their fear for their own health, are still sharing themselves above and beyond what we can imagine. Many of us spend a lot of our time worrying about every little sore throat or cough, trivial indicators or impending death we think. The caregivers today do not have that luxury.
We have not had the real numbers on caregiver deaths, but it is appalling that we lose even one of these precious people. 


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