A maintenance worker, a nurse, a waitress, a mailman, a food delivery worker and a construction site worker. Before the coronavirus pandemic, what these workers have in common would not be obvious.
But now, their roles in our society have become clear.
They are essential workers.
And like the historical figures who live on through art, Long Beach State alumna and artist Stephanie Mercado has memorialized these figures in her print collage, “For the Love of Essential Workers.”
The piece, commissioned by the Los Angeles County Metro, is part of a new art series, “Silver Linings,” which had local artists create artwork that highlight acts of care and inspires human connection amid the challenges the coronavirus pandemic brought. The pieces will be reproduced and displayed as posters on Metro buses until July.
Each print featured on Mercado’s collage, from the workers to images of Los Angeles neighborhoods and structures, were carefully considered by Mercado. The piece tells a story that draws inspiration from Mercado’s experience as a Los Angeles native.
She included a structure from Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights, where she grew up, on the bottom left of the collage, as well as an image of a Mariachi player blowing on a trumpet, a reference to musicians who have lost out on performance opportunities since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Throughout the piece are other notable Los Angeles structures, including the Watts Towers and Griffith Park, and between that, are the colorful prints of essential workers.
According to Mercado, the children with their backpacks and the image of an older woman carrying bags at the bottom of the piece are especially important to her.
“In my family, my mom and my grandmother used to constantly walk to the grocery store and carry groceries back home with a heavy load in their arms and that’s just the way it is in my neighborhood, and so there’s the risk factor in that too, you know, not being accustomed to just having groceries delivered,” Mercado said.
Creating artwork for the L.A. Metro is competitive, Mercado said, as the transportation system receives interest from many artists when an opportunity like “Silver Linings” is announced.
In 2013, Mercado applied for project with the L.A. Metro. It wasn’t until “Silver Linings” that Mercado would be selected to do a piece for the company.
“It took seven years for me to get my foot in and to get my work shown,” Mercado said. “I think that just being diligent and being persistent is key to being an artist, or to any field, really.”
Mercado, who graduated from CSULB in 2007, was given 12 days to complete the piece, working on it at night after her day job as a development associate at Self Help Graphics & Art, a community arts center in Los Angeles focusing on Latinx artists.
But it wasn’t just about completing the piece, it was about getting the message right, a decision that applies to all of her work.
“I want to make sure that I honor what is going on, that I honor the people who are working and that I don’t romanticize what is happening,” Mercado said. “I think that we have a responsibility as artists to create work that is not only honest, but is also just responsible in the way that we are creating imagery that represents our time.”
“For the Love of Essential Workers,” a piece that took about 100 hours to make, is an ode to the workers who have kept Los Angeles, and cities across the nation, functioning, Mercado said.
It represents that everyone in these positions were at risk of being exposed to the virus, and therefore, their work needs to be valued.
“I think that for an essential worker to see themselves represented in a piece…in an artwork as they’re riding to work can inspire some hope, maybe for a day, maybe it would have a longer lasting impression on them,” Mercado said. “That’s really what my goal was when I was including them in this landscape and making it so vibrant, is to try and create some kind of hope because this time will pass.”