As of this writing, almost 800K people have died of COVID-19 worldwide; over 150,000 have died in the United States; 5,989 have died in Texas; 1,243 have died in Houston. The numbers are numbingly unreal. How many people celebrated Christmas with their families and died alone by Easter? How many veterans survived the ravages of war only to be ravaged by a different enemy in their own beds? You may not know any of these people by name, but you know someone who knows someone. Those six degrees of separation narrow daily.
In Houston, artist Joni Zavitsanos decided to end the anonymity – to put names and faces and halos to the numbers. Icons on a COVID Memorial wall honoring local victims of the pandemic.
“I wondered, who are these people? What do they look like and who are their families and loved ones? It just seemed like a good thing to do.” Then her brother and a good friend contracted the disease. Though her brother’s case was relatively mild, her friend was hospitalized and put on a ventilator. She pulled through, but she remains hospitalized since June. “It will be a long haul for her,” Joni says. “I did not want her on my wall.”
In the beginning, Joni combed through local obituaries and Google searches looking for stories of real people that died in the Houston area from the virus. “Now it is as if the floodgates have opened, and I can barely keep up with depicting the numbers of lives lost.” She went from 60 to 100 names in two weeks, and, thus far, she has collected 125 names and pictures – “just a snippet,” she acknowledges, since more than 1000 residents in the Houston area have died. Now that her project has been made public, people tell Joni their stories, reassured that “their loved one will be honored and remembered.”
“Each one has a name and a story. They are of every race, every skin color, every socio-economic background, every age,” she says. “They are fathers, mothers, aunts and uncles, children and grandparents. They are first responders, priests, pastors, deacons, activists and political leaders. Some are from nursing homes and prisons and halfway houses … Not all people are treated with dignity and respect.”
Joni will tell their story. She will treat them with dignity and respect.
Besides being a visual medium to teach Christianity, icons are a ‘spiritual gateway’, a “medium for the faithful to establish communication with the sacred.” Painting in the Byzantine style, Joni depicts individuals with gold leaf halos to signify that they have died. “In Greek culture, very much like Hispanic and Jewish culture, we honor our dead,” she says. “We go to great lengths to make sure they are remembered. And I kept thinking about all these people dying alone and with no funerals in the usual sense.
Joni’s father, Dan, was an iconographer who taught her well, but her style is not as traditional as his. He saw that Modern Art was "art for art's sake," but the Byzantine icon was "art for man's edification." He posed the question, "Can Modern Art be edifying?" and if so, "how would that look?"
Joni incorporates collage, wood-block printing, and even contemporary figures into her work. Nevertheless, behind the unexpected presentation is a deep spiritual meaning. But the COVID icon project is simpler. She places a photograph on an 8x8 block of wood – the faces speak for themselves – and surrounds them with paint and gold halos. Her friend, Karen Weimmer, has created wreaths inscribed with each name to commemorate each individual. “We are all saints – that’s kind of the idea,” Joni says.
Currently, the icons live in her home studio. But Joni hopes to make her memorial a permanent exhibit in a public space “to pay homage to as many victims of the coronavirus as possible.” She plans to unveil the wall of icons during a memorial service for all of her subjects when public gatherings can resume. These people may have died alone, and their families may have been denied a last farewell and the consolation of their loved ones. But Joni’s COVID-19 project insures that all of Houston will remember them.
“It could be hung as it is today,” she says. “But people are still dying. I want it to be as full as it needs to be. I have more work than I know what to do with; it is fulfilling and heartbreaking at the same time. It's hard to sleep some nights. But I am driven and determined to do this for God, for my father, and for my city.”
How sad to think that Joni can be working on this labor of love for a really long time. And how comforting.