CalArts Alumna Humanizes Ebola Care Through Art

Update: Read a July 20, 2015, Los Angeles Review of Books interview (“An Artist’s Intervention in the Ebola Crisis“) with Heffernan.

When the Ebola epidemic was running rampant in parts of Africa last summer, artist and CalArts alumna Mary Beth Heffernan (Art MFA 94) couldn’t get the imagery of health care workers’ hazmat suits out of her head. Figures covered head-to-toe in personal protective equipment (PPE) were seemingly ripped from science fiction films, both intimidating and frightening to patients suffering from a highly insidious disease.

Although half a world away, Heffernan wanted to help through her art practice. In the spirit of what artist Joseph Beuys called “social sculpture,” she thought of a simple-sounding idea that could relieve the suffering of patients going days on end without seeing a human face.

Heffernan proposed printing portraits of healthcare workers on photo label material and sticking them to the outer layer of their “hazmat” suits. She imagined if patients could see an image of a care provider’s face, they might not feel cut off from humanity in the Ebola isolation wards.

Heffernan, an associate professor of photography and sculpture at Occidental College in Los Angeles, appealed to numerous NGOs and international health agencies before she was invited to bring the project to Liberia by its Chair of Ebola Case Management, Dr. Moses Massaquoi. Swiftly garnering grants from the Arnold P. Gold Foundation and Occidental College, and an ethics panel approval, she was on a flight to Liberia, and rolling out the project within weeks of Dr. Massaquoi’s invitation.

In an interview with Laura Mallonee for Hyperallergic, Heffernan said:

“I didn’t go around announcing I was making ‘art,’” Heffernan said. “I wanted to fix a specific problem, and I did everything I could to ensure that it was effective, culturally competent and ethical.” She measured the project’s impact by interviewing patients and workers and received feedback that was effusively positive. One doctor told her, “It’s nice to look around and be like, ‘Oh that is Bomia,’ or, ‘Oh that is Gorpu.’ It makes it feel more like I am working with people, with my team, instead of inanimate objects.” An Ebola Treatment Unit director said she was the first to address a need already noted in their operating manual. “The data are, of course, qualitative but unfailingly positive,” Heffernan concluded, adding that medical studies have shown positive social gestures can influence medical outcomes and actually reduce healing time.

Hefferan’s story of how art can make an impact in the world was reported on by leading international news sites including PRI/The World, NPRBBC’s Boston Calling and earned social media “shout outs” and re-posts from numerous high-profile personalities, including Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls FB Page and Chelsea Clinton on Twitter.

Listen to the NPR story below:

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