‘We’re all heroes’: This PSW is turning front-line pandemic experiences into art

TVO.org speaks with personal support worker Beth Kyle about the hardships and heroes that inspire her creative work during COVID-19
By Mary Baxter - Published on Feb 03, 2021
Beth Kyle is a personal support worker who lives in Belle River. (Artwork by Beth Kyle; photos by Tawnie Clark)

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The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario dealt a double blow to Beth Kyle.

When the province introduced public-health restrictions, the Belle River artist lost venues for exhibiting and selling her drawings and paintings. “People are just not in the position to purchase art,” she says. “They can't see it. They can't feel it. It's hard for them to envision it on a wall if I can't bring it to show them.”

And then there were the mounting stresses from her work as a home-care personal support worker in Windsor, a 25-minute drive away. “I need to gown. I need to cap. I need to goggle. I need to face mask,” she says. “When your supervisors are telling you that you need to dress that way to go into somebody’s house, that makes it very frightening because you never know what you’re walking into.”

Everywhere she went, she saw the toll the pandemic was taking. Her clients became isolated and dispirited, she says, and she felt pressure to put on a brave face: “If I don't go in there smiling, if I go in there frightened, then, for them, it makes or breaks their day.”

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In April, Kyle realized that confronting the realities of the pandemic head-on might offer a way to address both her challenges — and so began her efforts to document her PSW experiences through her art. “I thought, you know what? I'm going to take this time and put it to use by doing a project that I think people will be able to see … visualize, and enjoy, but it still pertains to what is happening in the world right now.”

TVO.org speaks with Kyle about her COVID-19 art project — which includes graphite drawings and paintings — and her other plans to express the pandemic experience through visual media.

TVO.org: What inspired you to use your art to document your work during the pandemic?

Beth Kyle: Pre-pandemic, we had a lot planned. I serve on the arts advisory committee for the Town of Lakeshore. There was an exhibit that a friend and I had put together that was supposed to open in November in an event venue in Emeryville. We had a group of 12 artists that were going to be involved. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, it was cancelled.

a man in glasses rests his head on his hand
Beth Kyle frequently uses watercolour, oil, and acrylics. (Courtesy of Beth Kyle)

[As the pandemic unfolded], I was watching — at first the effects that it had on the arts community [with cancellations], and then how scary it was going in as a PSW. And the only way that I know how to express myself is through my art. So I started to use that outlet to help me get through what was happening in the first wave, and I started to use it as a documentation of what's going on.

Also, the fear that my seniors and patients had, it was terrifying for them, not being able to see family, not being around people. So I started to use their and my circumstances as inspiration for my paintings and drawings. (I cannot draw them specifically due to privacy, so I use interpretation.)

TVO.org: What have their responses been like to your work?

Kyle: It's wonderful when I show them different ways that I interpreted their feelings onto a canvas. They really enjoyed that. 

TVO.org: What's been the greatest challenge in documenting your experiences and those of the people that you've come across?

Kyle: Keeping myself motivated enough. There are days that I come home and I'm just so sad and so tired of what's happening. I want to see my friends. I want to hug. I want to touch. That's been really difficult, not just for myself, but for everybody. So coming home and staying motivated enough to keep it going. I try to remind myself that the greatest medium is what I'm feeling, so it's better to put it on canvas than to just sit and mope.

My plan is to eventually use these works as a visual book.

TVO.org: What else have you been doing during the pandemic? 

Kyle: I am in the process of doing some murals for display in Lakeshore. I’m hoping to

painting of a masked woman with her hand to her forehead
Beth Kyle is hoping to put together a collage of images of real people on the front lines of the pandemic. (Courtesy of Beth Kyle)

put a collage of real people, real faces [of the people] that are out there fighting this COVID.

I posted on a front-line health-care workers' Facebook group and asked people to send me pictures. I have some from firemen. I have some from police officers, from paramedics — even from security guards. I want everybody to know that we're all heroes. I want people to visualize that we're all in this together, that we can form some kind of unity to get through it.

TVO.org: How many faces have you collected now?

Kyle: Oh my goodness. I must have close to 400 faces. When I put the word out, I had probably 300 within the first 48 hours.

A lot of people have been messaging me photos of people that they love or people that they know that are nurses and deserve to be featured. 

Unfortunately, I cannot do everybody's face, so I have to pick and choose who I can use. That's going to be a tough part, because there are so many people that are deserving. However, the photos have to be good enough for me to use as a reference as well. So that takes a bit of time. 

I think people were excited for it. And I hear that a lot. I have people messaging me, asking, “When are they going to go up? I want to come out and drive and see them.”

TVO.org: When do you plan to have this project completed?

Kyle: I am hoping to have at least two or three of them up by the end of February. I know that’s a reach, but I think I can do it.

TVO.org: How do you think the practice of art contributes to our understanding and negotiation of these terrible times?

painting of a gloved hand resting on folded hands
Beth Kyle works as a home-care personal support worker in Windsor. (Courtesy of Beth Kyle)

Kyle: Creative people — we see things differently, and we have the ability to express ourselves in so many different ways. Verbal communication sometimes is hard for an artist. That's why we communicate through canvas or we communicate through dance or we communicate through music.

And, honestly, the tough part is when you're not being allowed to do that — when I'm not being allowed to have that exhibit or to perform on that stage — not being able to express ourselves like we're normally allowed to. That's all been taken away from us. So where do you go? What do you do?

That's why I came up with the idea of putting it into a book form or putting it out there for the Town of Lakeshore to see.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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