Ashfield artist paints portraits of people who died from COVID-19

  • A portrait of a victim of COVID-19 painted free of charge by Robert Markey. Contributed image/Robert Markey

  • A painting by Robert Markey. Contributed image/Robert Markey

  • A portrait of a victim of COVID-19 painted free of charge by Robert Markey. Contributed image/Robert Markey

  • A portrait of a victim of COVID-19 painted free of charge by Robert Markey. Contributed image/Robert Markey

  • A painting by Robert Markey. Contributed image/Robert Markey

  • Robert Markey. Contributed photo—© 2015 Julie Orfirer

  • Robert Markey. Contributed photo/Julie Orfirer

Staff Writer
Published: 3/29/2021 12:52:19 PM

When COVID-19 spread throughout the United States about a year ago, the art industry came to a screeching halt seemingly overnight, leaving artists like Robert Markey, 73, in the dark.

“It’s been very difficult for artists, and musicians even more,” said Markey, a painter who lives in Ashfield. “Aside from online concerts, there’s just nothing for them. For artists, with galleries basically being closed, it’s been very difficult.”

He lost work. An exhibit of his work at The Bing Art Center in Springfield was canceled. For years, Markey taught art classes at the Hampshire County Jail, among other places — he wasn’t able to do that anymore. In semi-retirement, Markey says he owns rental property and was able to stay afloat financially through that income. Sidelined and watching the pandemic unfold from afar — as front-line workers labored tirelessly to meet the challenge — Markey says he felt helpless and “pretty useless” when it came to making things better for his community.

Then an opportunity arose through Art House New York, a gallery that represents his work.

“They were asking if any of their artists were interested in doing portraits of health care workers who died from COVID. And I said, ‘yes,’” Markey said.

What emerged from that inquiry is Markey’s latest artistic endeavor: A series of portraits depicting health care workers and local neighbors who fell victim to the ongoing pandemic. The paintings completed for Art House New York were displayed along with those contributed by other represented artists on a large screen on 39th Street.

Inspired, he posted on Facebook asking if anyone whose loved ones had died from COVID-19 locally wanted a portrait (free of charge). So far, he’s completed five portraits, two for the New York gallery, three for neighbors. He intends to continue the series as long as people are interested.

The paintings are simple in nature, copied from photographs contributed by loved ones and rendered with bold lines against plain backgrounds. Unlike his usual artistic process, Markey noted, “This is the first time I’ve done portraits of people I don’t know.”

Because of that, Markey says he usually paints from a few different photographs in order to get a better idea of who the person was: “When I do the portraits, I ask for a few photos and some background information so I can kind of know who they are from the background information. The different photos give me some idea. … I try to understand them as I’m painting them,” he said. “There’s always something about (them) — these people are wonderful people.”

Through the series, Markey says he hopes “to do something that helps the community. It’s difficult as an artist, with everything closed. … When this idea came up, I thought, ‘Wow, I could do something to help people.’”

It’s not the first time he’s taken on such a project. In one way or another, Markey’s artistic work has always been socially or politically charged — although it took him a little while to find his footing artistically.

As a young man, Markey attended MIT and graduated with a degree in physics. Then, in his words, he traveled a little bit, studied music and did “a little bit of drawing. I was performing, doing a lot of music,” he said. After college, “I rode my motorcycle cross country, sold it, bought a plane ticket and lived in Japan for a year.” He took up the sitar, traveled more (including an escapade through India) and enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for a master’s degree in computer science. In studying science, art continued to be a passion.

At UMass, “The second semester second year, I had some extra time ... there was an art wood sculpture course. I asked the teacher if I could take it; I said, ‘I’m a woodworker.”’

With a master’s degree, he was hired as an associate professor at Holyoke Community College, which was starting a computer science course. His interest remained in the arts: “As a teacher at HCC, I could take classes at any of the five colleges,” Markey said. He took an art course at Greenfield Community College, a sculpture course at Mount Holyoke College, a few at UMass.

And when his tenure at Holyoke Community College was up, Markey went into art full time.

“I built my log cabin in Plainfield, sold it, built my house in Ashfield and started doing construction so that I could play music,” Markey said. His visual art focused on political issues like the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.

“Art is a way to view the world. In my art that has a political focus, I want people to understand things they’ve never understood before,” Markey said. For example, one year he received permission to put on a public art project bringing attention to domestic violence against women in New York’s Central Station during the Super Bowl.

“The scoreboard had two scores: the Dallas Cowboys/Buffalo Bills, and the number of women battered since opening kickoff,” Markey said. “I got a lot of media on it. Also, in the response, I realized that people didn’t know how bad domestic violence was.”

Another time, he put on an exhibit bringing attention to trafficking. Working with street kids in Cambodia, “The whole show was portraits of wonderful kids. And then there was one portrait near the end” that made viewers stop and think, Markey said. “The idea was really to open people up to understand something.”

Markey’s most recent project, while not overtly political, certainly has social underpinnings.

The completed paintings are intimate, capturing not just the subjects themselves but also the way in which their memories are cherished.

“When I make a work of art, I never know what the response is going to be,” Markey said. So far, “It’s been pretty amazing. When I’ve delivered the paintings, met the people, they have just been so thankful. Some of them cried when they saw the paintings of their mother or friend who died.”

Anyone who is interested in a free portrait of a loved one who has died from COVID-19 can contact Markey through his website, robertmarkey.com.

Andy Castillo is the features editor at the Greenfield Recorder. He can be reached at acastillo@recorder.com.


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