Nirmal Raja will never forget the message sent to her from an emergency room nurse in Belgium.
“I may be a drop in the sea, yes, but it is my reason for being,” the message said.
Raja, a Milwaukee artist, embroidered the phrase on a cloth face mask, snapped a photo and posted it to her Instagram. The mask is one of nearly 50 in her growing art series “Feeble Barriers,” which features quotes from anonymous health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.
The name “Feeble Barriers” refers to how the health care system acts as a barrier between the virus and the population and how daunting it can feel to face off against a pandemic, Raja explained.
Raja, 51, has lived and worked in Milwaukee with her husband and two children for nearly 20 years. She is represented by Portrait Society Gallery in the Historic Third Ward.
Raja described her art as a response to lived experience. For example, her series “On Belonging” explored race and identity in America against the backdrop of Raja’s experience as an Indian American.
Raja said “Feeble Barriers” is her way of giving voice to workers who care for patients affected by the coronavirus.
“Health care workers themselves are vulnerable, but they’re busy,” Raja said. “They don’t have time to advocate for themselves.”
The idea for the series came to Raja “when the pandemic started feeling like a pandemic.”
Like others, Raja began sewing cloth face masks in early April to donate to various groups in need. While sewing, she was inspired to use the masks as a medium for quotes she was seeing in the news or hearing from loved ones working in health care. She posted an open call to participate in the project on social media, and she has since received nearly 30 messages.
One physician at Children’s Wisconsin expressed gratitude.
“Grateful for the incredible team support in our hospital and campus,” the doctor said.
A Milwaukee nurse shared her fear and anxiety.
“Will I take this home?” the nurse asked. “Will I be next?”
Some masks describe the sacrifices some have made to keep their families safe while working with patients who have tested positive for COVID-19.
“I sent my kids away for three months to keep them safe,” said a nurse in Arizona. “I cry all day for them.”
Other masks list the reasons health care workers have to keep working.
“COVID doesn’t stop childhood cancer,” said a health care worker from Children’s Wisconsin. “So COVID doesn’t stop me.”
Debra Brehmer, the owner and director of Portrait Society Gallery, noted how the use of the face mask and hand stitching work together to form a simple and direct “tribute to the vulnerabilities of this time period.”
“Ultimately, this project extends a feeling of caring and sharing,” Brehmer said. “It is both visually and conceptually potent.”
Raja plans on continuing the project until she makes 101 unique masks. Each installment of “Feeble Barriers” can be found on her Instagram. Later this summer, Raja will be installing the series at Grove Gallery, 830 S. Fifth St. in Walker’s Point, and filming a video of the installation.
Brett Waterhouse, co-manager of Grove Gallery, said he hopes “Feeble Barriers” will remind viewers of the humanity of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Regardless of what your political views are, this is affecting people who made a career decision to serves others,” Waterhouse said. “They need to be heard.”
Raja said in addition to amplifying the voices of health care workers, “Feeble Barriers” paints a picture of what life is like right now.
“We might look back at this work and say, ‘That’s what it felt like to live through this moment,’” she said.
Health care workers can contribute their thoughts and reflections to “Feeble Barriers” through Raja’s email address firstname.lastname@example.org.