It’s 6 a.m. in Orlando, Florida, and Nelson Cárdenas, 47, is on his way to the Orlando Health Dr. P. Phillips Hospital, where he works as a prep cook. As he approaches the building, he stands outside the emergency department’s entrance. There hangs a series of six 4-feet by 4-feet portraits. Each features a different health care worker, their faces literally burnt into plywood canvases. With masks hiding their noses and mouths, Cárdenas focuses on their eyes. In them, he sees hope.
“When people walk into the emergency room, sick and scared, I want them to see the hope in these peoples’ eyes,” says Cárdenas, who regularly checks on his portraits, which he created to honor his colleagues. “I want them to know that we are going to come out of this.”
A self-taught artist, originally from Columbia, Cárdenas created the tribute using pyrography, a technique of decorating a material through the application of burn marks. He sketches a rough outline of the image on the plywood, sprays alcohol on the wood to moisten it and enhance the flame, then uses various blowtorches to create lines and shading. He adds oil paint to the wood as he goes, alternating back and forth between blowtorch and paintbrush multiple times before sealing his works and standing back.
Still, when he enters the hospital, he’s a cook first — and has been for the last six years. After learning to cook as a child with his mother, he decided to make a career of his love for food and went to culinary school.
And while it might seem surprising that the cook doubles as a blowtorch-wielding artist, the two roles really aren’t that different to him.
“I love to use my hands, to create something from nothing, from scratch,” Cárdenas says. And, for him, olive oil and oil paint are just two different mediums. He also uses chocolate to paint on canvases and etches images into glass with Dremel tools. Lately, he has been experimenting with “painting” metal with electricity. Plus, he notes that whether he’s working in the kitchen or on his art, he has to wear a mask. So there’s always that similarity, too.
When it came to the creation of tribute portraits, he chose six health care workers, two from Orlando Health Dr. P. Phillips Hospital and four from around the country, all anonymous. His subjects included a nurse, a person who delivers food to patients, one who transports patients, one who cleans patients’ rooms, a doctor and another nurse.
“I began and ended the series with a nurse because, to me, they are the main character,” says Cárdenas, who created the portraits in his garage over the course of 20 hours. “It was kind of like a therapeutic thing for me,” he says. While inside, “There was no mention of coronavirus, I didn’t think about it. I was just thinking of the people.”
Working in a hospital, the mental break was welcome. “The coronavirus is the only thing I hear about,” he says. “Every day, I try to put it in the back of my mind and focus on my goal of making healthy, tasty meals for people.”
Still, even with the pandemic always in the background of his job, work is where he feels the safest, he says. He’s confident that the hospital is doing what’s necessary to keep him, and his wife and two kids at home, healthy. “They don’t play,” he says. “They take this seriously. We know what’s going on, and people are all doing their part to keep everyone safe, very safe.”
And while he doesn’t love wearing a mask for eight hours a day — “it hurts my ears after a while” — he’s grateful to be able to help others.
“I know that there are people who rely on me for food that will help them get better,” he says. “I’m not cutting corners.” He explains that, in the morning, he washes and chops vegetables, cuts meat and preps all of the ingredients for that day’s menu. He works from a collection of the hospital’s master recipes, all of which are designed to support recovery and health in patients. Then, he helps other cooks as they manipulate the ingredients into meals, giving them advice on techniques and seasoning before taste-testing the dishes.
“It’s like a science, and it’s easy to kill some broccoli. I don’t give anyone mushy vegetables,” he says, explaining that nutritious foods don’t have to and, shouldn’t, taste bad. After all, a meal has to taste good for anyone to actually eat it — and benefit from its nutrients.
“If you think hospital food is bad, come to our hospital,” he laughs. “Our mac and cheese is delicious!”
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Orlando Hospital Cook Honors Health Care Heroes With Portraits originally appeared on usnews.com