Cedar Rapids unveils mural featuring local healthcare workers

Cedar Rapids dedicates a new mural to honor healthcare heroes on Monday, November 1, 2021. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

A new two-story mural appeared almost overnight in Cedar Rapids to recognize the courage and sacrifice of healthcare workers.

“This project is meant to be a tribute. A tribute to our local healthcare workforce,” said Jesse Thoeming, executive director of the Downtown District, which is part of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance.

“For these past 20 months, a very, very small subset of our population has been on the frontlines of this global battle against an invisible and deadly enemy. In all of human history, arguably, never has so much been asked of so few,” he said during the mural’s dedication Monday morning.

The mural, which was unveiled on Monday, features portraits of doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers at UnityPoint Health, St. Luke’s Hospital and Mercy Medical Center. Local artist Isaac Campbell, a digital media specialist based in southeast Iowa, designed the mural.

“Bex Hurn, the owner of the On View Gallery, she contacted me back in the summer,” he said. “We kinda went back and forth on some ideas. And then finally she said, ‘Can we do something for the healthcare workers in Cedar Rapids?’ And I jumped at the opportunity. I was so excited to help pay tribute to what the healthcare workers have been doing tirelessly since this all started.”

Campbell photographed healthcare workers at St. Luke’s and Mercy, taking portraits of them in their environment.

“We decided to go with portraits because I think they communicated, you know, these are the people behind the scenes that we don’t really see in the public discussion about the pandemic. And as far as I’m concerned the most important people we should be thinking about.”

He captured the images while healthcare workers were working or getting ready, to show people the reality of the pandemic.

“I tried to be as authentic to that moment or that environment that they were in,” Campbell said. “We got them in hospital rooms and hallways and closets, you know, wherever they were at, in the things they were wearing at the time.”

The mural features Dr. Hassan Sajjad, a primary critical care physician with Mercy, among other healthcare workers. Before Campbell took his portrait, Sajjad put on equipment to enter the COVID ward. He said the pandemic has affected the entire healthcare community, from nurses to respiratory therapists to laboratory technicians.

“In the IC (Intensive Care), I feel some days we felt defeated, you know. We didn’t see the progress we hoped for our patients, and on other days, we kind of hung on small, little improvements,” Sajjad said. “We really appreciate the gesture from the community.”

Letters thanking healthcare workers surround a small printout of the completed mural. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Dr. Dustin Arnold, the chief medical officer of St. Luke’s, said that the mural represents the courage and bravery of healthcare workers and is “gratefully received by the healthcare community.”

“Courage is not the absence of fear. It’s to act in its presence,” said Arnold. “And so many have moved forward with such courage and bravery, they’ve really become role models for the rest of us.”

The tribute is a temporary mural created with normal copy machine paper, printed off on rolls 25 feet tall and three feet wide. It’s then cut and rolled onto the wall with a glue made of flour, water and sugar.

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“It’s really a simple technique, but when imagined this big it can really do some cool things,” Campbell said.

The mural ideally should last three to six months, but Campbell has had other murals across the state last a year or longer.

“I always tell people it’s a mystery because you never know. It’s totally exposed to the elements. We’re about to go through an Iowa winter, which who knows what that’s going to be like,” he said.

It took around 10 hours to complete the mural, with a team of volunteers helping Campbell cut, past and pull nails out of the wall.

Isaac Campbell (left) talks about the process of making clear prints of the portraits, placing the images together and pasting them to the wall. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

“It’s important I think to know that this is not just me. There were a lot of volunteers we had helping. We had some high school students that helped,” he said.

The mural is pasted on the former Gazette building near the corner of 5th Street and 3rd Avenue SE, facing Cedar Rapids’ MedQ District, where healthcare workers should see it coming to and from work.

“Thank you for being on the frontlines and enduring such a stretch of time that will be written about and studied for several decades and probably centuries to come,” Thoeming said.