North Carolina, USA, 2020

During the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic of 2020, I have been working on a series of Pandemic Portraits.

These portraits are simple acrylic and gouache paintings of masks on people pictured in vintage, found, and inherited photographs from the early 1900s through the end of the 20th century.


Sometimes, I also paint polka dots into the photographs, symbolizing the airborne and virulent virus.


While working on these portraits, I think of the black plague, the Ebola virus, SARS, AIDS, swine flu and COVID-19 and how all we are all connected – from past to present, now, and across continents.

Black Masks

I also consider these portraits as small acts of resistance. As a reluctant citizen of – and living in – the USA, masks and empathy have become politicized. Some refuse to wear and condemn wearing masks (among other life-saving measures like temporarily closing schools and gyms, providing universal health care etc). Public health officials encourage us all to wear masks to protect others, our family, our loved ones, strangers in our community.

Lavendar Masks 2

These hand-painted masks are gestures of love in the time of the pandemic.



Pandemic Poetry

I have been writing poetry since childhood. During the pandemic, I reached out to people via social media for word prompts with which to construct poems. I needed to build a sense of community and collaboration during the isolating and stressful time of the pandemic in a polarized and violent presidential election year. Contributors felt the same way. Each poem includes a list of the words and contributors’ names at the end.


It’s as if we all have it,
forgetting that normal is brutal,
unlearning the facts we hate,
not knowing that everything we did
got us here –
to this pandemic
place where we can see mountains
unseen for decades
and dolphins in the Venetian canals.

It’s as if neither world war happened –
no one died, no one survived,
no one suffered and no one remembers
how enemies are human,
greed criminal
and denial dumb.

If I could not know my name,
unknow nationalities
and political parties,
uncomprehend logic and systems
while being in the constant fog
of the present breath
breathing in now
breathing out now,
I would.

Word prompt – amnesia; given to Haven Kimmel from me for her to write a poem. Then Allison Coleman suggested I write a poem using the word amnesia.


Bonus material

War and violence // beauty and activism // exposure and illumination: a video interview with the artist and commentary on her work



elin o’Hara slavick is a Professor of Art at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Slavick has exhibited her work internationally. Her work is held in many collections, including the Queens Museum, The National Library of France, The Library of Congress and the Art Institute of Chicago. Slavick is the author of two monographs: Bomb After Bomb: A Violent Cartography and After Hiroshima. She has authored a chapbook of surrealist poetry, Cameramouth, and an artist book, Holding History in Our Hand. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, FOAM, San Francisco Chronicle, Asia-Pacific Journal and Photo-Eye, among other publications. She is also a curator, critic, poet, activist and organizer.