The oil painting of the late Harold Arnold that sits on his wife Shirley’s mantel at her North Canton home is a comfort to her after losing him in December to COVID-19.
Sylvia Shanahan, an artist based in Florida who grew up in Tallmadge and lived in Stow for many years, used Shirley’s favorite photo of Harold, the one she and daughter Victoria Nacci had chosen for his obituary, to paint his portrait.
In it, the light shines on his face as he gazes intently.
Nacci received the portrait in the mail at her North Canton home in January as a surprising gift of comfort planned by longtime friend Claudia King of Perry Township. King knows Shanahan and saw on her social media that the artist, who moved to Largo, Florida, a decade ago, was part of a national organization called Faces Not Numbers.
The program, founded by artist Margaret Bayalis of St. Petersburg, Florida, provides professional portraits of COVID-19 victims to their loved ones at no charge. The group’s mission is to use the healing power of art to create the memorial to help comfort families and raise awareness of the pandemic’s toll on human life.
“I wanted to do something to bring comfort to victims’ families, honor those that lost their battle and remind society that every number has a face behind it and a family that’s grieving,” founder Bayalis said.
Shanahan has been involved with Faces Not Numbers since the early stages, coming on board in January with the group, which spreads the word about its portrait offerings through social media. Some 20 artists have created nearly 100 free portraits for loved ones in Florida, Ohio, Georgia, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Louisiana and Michigan.
Among the 20 memorial portraits that Shanahan has painted, seven have been for the loved ones of COVID-19 victims in Ohio.
King wanted the portrait of Nacci’s father to be a surprise for her, so she had Shanahan use Arnold’s obituary photo as its basis. King described Arnold as a sweet, quiet man with an easygoing manner.
“It just seemed to capture a little smile at the corner of his mouth,” she said of his portrait, “and a little twinkle.”
“It makes me happy to think of how many people they’re doing this for and for people to have some remembrance that’s not related to an ending, as such,” King said of Faces Not Numbers. “These are real people and they had families, they had lives and they did things.”
Nacci cried when she received the portrait in the mail.
“That was just the sweetest thing,” she said. “We never expected that.”
When Nacci’s mother came over for dinner to see her husband’s portrait, Nacci knew she had to give it to her. Now, as Harold’s portrait sits on Shirley Arnold’s mantel, she says, “I know he’s here and that makes me feel better,” according to her daughter.
‘The best dad ever’
Nacci’s mom and dad, both 84, contracted COVID in November. Shirley survived, while Harold was in and out of the hospital with pneumonia.
Nacci was talking and laughing with him on the phone one day in early December, when doctors thought he was improving. But early the next morning, she received a call about making a decision to put her father on a ventilator. He died soon afterward, on Dec. 9, 2020.
Nacci said her father was a dapper, gregarious, 6-foot, 5-inch man who was proud of his longtime membership in the Hall of Fame Luncheon Club. A Hoover Co. retiree, Arnold loved both sports and sweets.
His portrait by Shanahan captures his essence, she said.
“He was the best dad ever,” Nacci said.
‘I wanted to help out’
Families who would like a portrait of a loved one lost to COVID-19 can look at Faces Not Names on Facebook, scroll through to find an artist’s style they like, and send a private message to that artist to request a painting. Shanahan said most of the portrait artists do representational work but some are more modern.
A portrait can be requested from an artist based anywhere in the country. All that the volunteer artists ask for is $20 for postage.
Shanahan, 66, has known COVID-19 personally: In July, both she and her husband Jim, 77, got it. She felt like she had a sinus infection. The disease has had a lasting effect on her husband’s heart: Jim, formerly an economics professor at the University of Akron, is now considered a long-hauler.
“I think in our lifetime, this is going to be be one of the biggest things. Our parents had World War II, we have COVID,” Shanahan said.
“As an artist who cares about people, I wanted to help out,” she said.
Vicki Boatright, a Canton artist, was inspired to become a part of Faces Not Numbers after learning of friend Shanahan’s involvement with the organization and following Shanahan’s own family struggle with COVID-19.
“I had been following her personal journey and the posts she’d made about her own illness and her husband’s illness and her husband’s ongoing problems with it,” Boatright said.
When Shanahan posted on Facebook about her volunteerism painting memorial portraits, Boatright was struck by how Shanahan’s focus on helping others was also helping her deal with her own COVID experience.
Boatright, who specializes in painting animals and is newer to painting human portraits, has done one Faces Not Numbers portrait so far. That order came from a woman in West Virginia who missed her good friend and neighbor, identified as Judy, who died from COVID-19 in January at 96.
“This is a neat way for me to be able to do my part, what little bit I can do” to help others during the pandemic, Boatright said.
“Through the whole pandemic, the arts have been hit hard but the arts have also been what’s kept us going,” said Boatright, who works at a vocational workshop, leading a team of artists with developmental disabilities at Just Imagine Gift Gallery in Canton. “I think that having artistic activities to do on your own but also have the arts interpret and express and share the moment that we’re all experiencing has helped in a lot of ways. It’s helping us get through this.”
Boatright, who goes by artist BZTAT, has been creating memorial portraits in a pop art style. She’s working on her second portrait now, a request from a New York woman to paint her late mother as a gift to her sister. The women’s mother went into the hospital for a collapsed lung and contracted COVID-19 in the hospital.
Shanahan said the personalities of those who have been lost to COVID-19 come out in the photos that their loved ones send. She finds herself talking to the person, asking him or her what color background they’d like for their portrait.
She said it’s a good feeling to receive letters and emails from people thanking her for capturing their loved one’s personality.
“The gratification you get from doing this is just so special,” Shanahan said.