When Dr. Emily Hagn received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in December 2020, she was so excited that she asked to keep the vial. At the time, she had no idea that her spur-of-the-moment decision would grow into a multimedia art installation featuring thousands of vials and other physical mementos contributed by members of the public to express their collective pandemic experience. We asked Dr. Hagn about her "Rise Up" project and what it means to her and her community.
We’ll get to the actual art project in a moment, but first: Ok, you’re an anesthesiologist, it’s December 2020 and you’ve just received your very first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and…you ask to keep the vial? What was going through your head in that moment? What were your initial plans for that unusual keepsake?
As a healthcare worker on the frontlines of the pandemic, getting my first COVID-19 vaccine was a very positive and hopeful experience. COVID-19 vaccinations in people’s arms all within the same calendar year as the start of the pandemic…it was miraculous! I asked for a vial so that I could make a tree ornament or perhaps drill a hole in it to attach to my work lanyard. I wanted something to remember that moment and to symbolize our path to healing. I wanted to honor our patients, honor our community, honor healthcare workers, honor science, and honor humanity.
You’ve obviously got some artistic tendencies yourself. What’s your relationship with art in your own life?
Prior to creating Project Art Heals, I had minimal experience with art (outside of coloring with my 7-year-old daughter). I have always been a math/science girl. I majored in engineering and then pursued anesthesiology as a career.
I never used to pay much attention to art. Now, I see art through a different lens. Art is everywhere. It can be raw and emotional and painful and confusing and colorful and inspirational and healing…much like life has been during the pandemic.
Many of us have ideas for something big, but very few actually follow through on them. What was your big idea, and how did you go about making it a reality?
I never made that vial trinket because a) I did not know how to make an ornament and b) I put my sights on something bigger. At a time when people across the globe were experiencing pandemic fatigue and many in our healthcare communities were suffering profound moral injury and burnout, I craved something that had the potential to unite our community, acknowledge our separate and individual pandemic journeys, and memorialize lives deeply affected by or lost to COVID-19.
The COVID-19 global pandemic reached just about every corner on Earth. It has affected most everyone in one way or another. There are likely few exceptions to that. The AIDS Memorial Quilt was conceived and created during the early stages of the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s, but to my knowledge there was no collaborative, community memorial for the COVID-19 pandemic. I felt like we needed something to acknowledge our pandemic journeys.
I worked with the Salt Lake County Health Department to collect tens of thousands of COVID-19 vaccine vials between Jan and June of 2021. They were troopers to collect those for me. I didn’t know how I would make something out of them, but I had faith I would figure it out.
Then in August 2021, I was visiting my mom in Denver and she told me about a feature she saw on artist Heidi Calega on a local news channel. Heidi had started making mosaics during the pandemic after cleaning out her family’s closets during lockdown. I instantly fell in love with Heidi’s work. I created a dummy social media account to reach out to her to see if she wanted to be the artist for the project and she wrote back with these words: “I’m 100% in!”
We all saw the timelines of the different COVID-19 surges. I realized that nowhere in those timelines was there time to collectively pause to reflect on our experiences, to mourn our losses, or to celebrate the lessons we have learned and the obstacles we have overcome.
About the same time I connected with Heidi, I realized I wasn’t doing so well. I was feeling a lot of anger and confusion and sadness as a pandemic dragged on. I was worried I was losing empathy. Losing empathy as a physician felt catastrophic. I poured my energy into the writing of a sustainability grant for the art project. That helped. The forward movement of planning Project Art Heals and a budding friendship with an artist in Denver came to be a saving grace during the global pandemic. It filled my tank instead of depleting it. I found purpose through a time of suffering.
Tell us about the completed project. What are you hoping to say with Rise Up, and what do you think it says about you?
Heidi and I put a lot of thought into planning the art piece. We wanted the art to create a hopeful means to pay tribute to the ups and downs of the pandemic. Because the pandemic was so universal, we wanted the art to be collaborative. We wanted to make the project inclusive. To do that, we expanded the art beyond just using vials.
We asked the public to donate small mementos (to be used in the art) to commemorate their experiences, losses, and triumphs through the COVID-19 pandemic. We created a post office box and set up public droboxes so anyone could get their physical mementos to us. An enthusiastic team at the U of Utah Eccles Health Science Library set up a website where people shared their memento and pandemic stories. At the same time, my friends and colleagues in healthcare collected clean healthcare waste from patient care areas, all to be used to create the art piece.
In the end, Rise Up is a 5-foot by 5-foot mosaic art piece that is comprised of three brightly colored human figures that are joyously jumping. The figures are made up of the small mementos donated by the public to commemorate their pandemic experiences, and the figures are also comprised of countless pieces of clean healthcare waste. They are “held in space” by the vaccine vials, much like the COVID-19 vaccine supported us in moving beyond the darkest times of the pandemic.
Even if you did not donate a memento, collect healthcare waste, or receive a vaccine dose from the specific vials used in the art piece, anyone can still consider themselves a part of this art project simply by having lived through the COVID-19 pandemic. This art project is for everyone, near and far. It is by the community and for the community.
Whether you are physically standing in front of the mosaic in Utah or viewing it online via the interactive high-resolution maps (view here), my hope is that Rise Up creates a space for people to pause, reflect, acknowledge, mourn, and heal. To me, the art design symbolizes our individual and shared pandemic experiences and traumas, while acknowledging the science and humanity that have led to our resiliency and recovery.
As for what it says about me: I learned it is never too late to explore different areas of our brain to access hope. Creating Project Art Heals turned out to be a big part of my own healing during the pandemic. I now know the power of healing through art.
How can people learn more about Rise Up? Is there still a way to get involved?
Visit our website at artheals.utah.edu to interactively explore the art mosaic and read the individual stories behind the mementos! It is an awesome supplement to the art piece.
While the physical memento collection is closed, the website remains open for anyone to continue to share their pandemic stories and pictures. There is no hierarchy of grief or experiences related to the COVID-19 pandemic. If you feel it, then it is real. We invite anyone with whom this resonates to participate.
Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t asked you about?
My hope is to find a public space in which we can permanently display Rise Up. If anyone has contacts at places they think might want to display the piece, at a public space or museum (Smithsonian?!), I’d welcome that!
In the words of Andra Day’s inspirational song Rise Up (the namesake for the art mosaic):
“All we need is hope
And for that we have each other”
Emily Hagn, MD, splits her time between being an anesthesiologist, a pain medicine physician, a wife, and a mother to 7-year-old Leah. She enjoys the daily journey of practicing medicine and working in academics. She loves interacting with people, whether they are patients, colleagues, family, friends, or strangers. She likes dirt: biking on it, running on it, camping on it. She has always been a math/science person. She is just now starting to access the artistic side of her brain.