‘Thankful for everything they’ve done’: Anchorage students turn health workers’ selfies into art

Anchorage health care workers pose with the portraits of themselves on May 5, 2021 at the Alaska Native Medical Center. The portraits were created by students in the Anchorage School District based off of selfies the workers submitted. (Photo credit: Anchorage School District)

Throughout the pandemic, communities across the country have looked for ways to honor health care workers and essential employees with everything from synchronized applause to jet plane flyovers

In Anchorage, student artists participated in their own project, channeling their skills into unique portraits of local nurses and doctors and other essential staff like cleaners. 

The project was started by Jacob Bera, an Eagle River High School art teacher.

Bera told Alaska Public Media in April he wanted to put the focus back on health care workers during a time when political discussions about the pandemic were heating up. 

“It was one thing for us to have a debate about whether we should wear masks or not. But at the end of the day, the thing that they were facing every day was how do we keep people safe?” Bera said. “I just felt like sometimes the spotlight wasn’t shined on them enough, and that they weren’t getting the appreciation they deserved.”

LISTEN: State of Art: Find out how Anchorage School District students honored health care workers 

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Bera said he put out a call to essential and health care workers in November, asking for selfies. He received more 100 submissions.

Some submissions were from workers themselves. Others came from family members or friends who wanted to celebrate their loved ones, Bera said.

The photos were then distributed to student artists interested in participating in the project throughout the Anchorage School District — ranging from kindergartners who used crayons and markers to draw thank-you cards, to high school seniors who used pencils, digital tools and mixed media to create portraits.

Thank you cards for health care workers made by Anchorage School District kindergarteners and first graders displayed at the Alaska Native Medical Center on May 5, 2021. (Mayowa Aina/Alaska Public Media)

The portraits were unveiled at local medical centers in May. 

Tessa Filipenko, a registered nurse at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, said a friend encouraged her to send in a selfie as part of the project. 

“Especially during the pandemic, when it’s just so crazy, it’s nice to have something happy,” Filipanko said.

Projects like these are a boost to staff morale, said ANMC Hospital Administrator Bob Onders.  

“I think it really captures the human component of health care,” Onders said. “For health care workers, it’s been a very trying time, particularly through November and December. Here in Anchorage, it was extremely challenging for us, with hospital capacity being stressed … amongst all the other things in the community and in the school system and balancing the rest of their life, it’s been a challenging time.”

Eagle River High School senior and artist Courtney Jones-Brunner, 17, created a watercolor portrait for the project. She chose her subject because of her eyes. 

“They’re really pretty and just artistically pleasing,” she said.

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Jones-Brunner said she was grateful to have found a way to celebrate the workers and give back.

“I’m not medical at all, I can’t give back like that. So I was glad I could give back in a way that my talent, my art, is something that people are appreciating right now,” Jones-Brunner said. “I’m just very thankful for everything they’ve done.”

The portraits are collected on the project website and will be on display at the Anchorage Museum through June 30.