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“I wanted every single employee — all 1,800 — to have a painting to show how much they are loved and appreciated,” said Gittes, who spent more than three months painting about 100 flowers a day, using a syringe as “a symbol of healing.” (The project was financed through the sale of several paintings to anonymous collectors.)
“It was the height of the crisis in New York, and I’d been talking to my fiancee (Taylor Crichton) about what a wild idea it is that people could be loved by so many and not necessarily be aware of it,” he said. “We came up with the idea to give paintings to a hospital that was especially affected by covid.”
He continued: “I decided to paint flowers because even though these people are all part of a big beautiful garden, I wanted them to know they were all individual flowers, and without them, there would be no garden. I wanted it to have a ‘secret admirer’ kind of vibe.”
On July 13, after the delivery truck pulled in front of Interfaith Medical Center, Gittes’s paintings were carefully unloaded and handed out to every employee at the hospital. From custodians and cafeteria workers to security guards, nurses, doctors and chief executives, nobody was forgotten, he said.
Gittes, who titled his project “Strangers to No One,” wasn’t there for the gifting, but everyone felt the emotional impact of his generosity, said Tracy Green, the hospital’s chief financial officer.
“Hospital staff in all departments came to work even when members of their family had contracted coronavirus to support their colleagues and care [for] hundreds of strangers,” she said. “Perseverance got us through and then comes a package — a piece of art in a sturdy wooden frame, simple and beautiful, as acknowledgment of their sacrifice.”
For Sheila Arthur-Smith, a 61-year-old patient-accounts representative, hanging Gittes’s pink-and-purple abstract flower on her living room wall was a touching reminder of what she has lost and what she now gives thanks for.
Arthur-Smith said she was in the hospital for nine days with covid-19 in late March and was so weak she would barely breathe or speak.
To communicate with her husband, she tapped on the phone, “so he’d know I was still alive,” she said. On the day she was released, Arthur-Smith received sad news: Her older sister, Patricia, had died that day of covid-19 in a Queens hospital.
“I see Michael’s painting as a memorial to my sister, and I’ll never forget that he created this for me from his heart,” she said. “It’s incredible to me that he took the time to paint so many portraits and show that the work we have done is not in vain and that we’re loved. It’s a phenomenal gift.”
The second of two children born to film producer Harry Gittes and Christine Cuddy, an attorney, Michael Gittes grew up in a creative environment where paintings were hung at his eye level “so I could take everything in and explore,” he recalled.
“My earliest memories are of paintings and drawings and photos from the newspaper that my parents would cut out and hang up,” he said.
It wasn’t until he was 23, though, that Gittes decided to make a living as an artist.
“I was interviewing for a job as an advertising art director and the guy offered me $100 for one of the drawings in my portfolio,” he said. “That was the first time it occurred to me that people might buy my artwork.”
For “Strangers to No One,” he asked his manager, Eli Bronner, to select a hospital to receive the paintings “because I wanted it to truly feel like they came from a stranger,” he said. “I wanted it to feel like they came from the sky, like this was a giant ‘thank you’ from everyone.”
When Gittes was told that Interfaith Medical Center had 1,800 employees, he decided the number was perfect, he said.
“It was what I’d been asking for, which was more than I could bear,” said Gittes. “I guess that I needed to feel it was impossible in order to do it.”
Arthur-Smith, for one, is grateful that Gittes’s 1,800 framed “thank yous” were ultimately doable.
“People can donate food and supplies, but when you have a piece of art, it stays with you,” she said. “It becomes a part of you. Michael Gittes’s lovely painting is something that will sustain me throughout this pandemic.”