Healthcare workers in PPE gear

The PPE Portrait Project is an interdisciplinary social practice art project in the process of changing best medical practice.

The project humanizes anonymous masked healthcare workers with wearable portraits affixed to the outside of their hazmat suits. Created in 2014 by Occidental College Professor Mary Beth Heffernan in response to the Ebola epidemic, the PPE Portrait Project is now supporting COVID care at LAC+USC, and USC-Keck Hospital in Los Angeles, Stanford Medical School, UMASS, Mass General and advising nearly a dozen other hospitals across the US and beyond. At the heart of the PPE Portrait Project is the centrality of the portrait image, and the role of the face in generating empathy, compassion and ethical behavior. PPE Portraits are designed to generate warmth, activating a patient’s own healing mechanisms.

With widespread facemask use on our horizon for the foreseeable future, the need to address the isolation and alienation caused by faceless person-to-person exchange is expanding beyond the urgent need of hospitals. Precipitated by social media, and now exacerbated by the coronavirus, we are experiencing an “epidemic of facelessness.” This Oxy Immersive program will provide Oxy students with a vital opportunity to learn, reflect, research, and ethically act on one of the defining issues of our lifetime. By envisioning and implementing their own local PPE Portrait project sites, students will become actively involved in the research and development of this dynamic interdisciplinary project that exemplifies the vitality and promise of liberal arts approaches to communities' pressing needs.

Fall 2020 Program Description

The PPE Portrait Project semester includes two courses and a community-based project. All together, this 12-credit cluster will fulfill three core requirements: the Fall CSP, Fine Arts, and US Diversity.  All components of the program will be fully remote so that any Oxy student may participate regardless of where they reside.  Please note the class times in the descriptions below--required synchronous meetings will be held during these times.

CSP 28: Being with People

4 credits, taught by Prof. Morrissey, Philosophy

MWF 2:45-3:40pm

In this course students will consider the moral dimensions of our relationships to one another, paying special attention to the relationship between healthcare workers and their patients. Readings will be drawn from philosophical accounts of what we owe to one another as people, focusing on the nature and value of solidarity, and the responsibility to and value of being “with” one another.

ARTS 270: Ethics, Art and Medicine: PPE Portrait Project

4 credits, taught by Prof. Heffernan, Art & Art History

T/Th 9-11:30am

In this course, students will learn how artists act as innovators and catalysts of change, responding directly to real world challenges with an artmaking mode known as “social practice.” The course will examine the art history and visual studies of representing the face, especially photography and the legacies of physiognomy, and anthropometry; the question of whether infants can read images of faces, and attachment theories and the face. Additionally, the neuroscience of mirror neurons and the biological basis of intersubjectivity as the foundation of ethical behavior; the biology and physiology of social and cultural actions (like wearing a PPE Portrait); and the philosophy of bioethics and notions of patient self-determination and agency (studied intensively in Prof. Morrissey's course) are constitutive elements of this social practice art project. Moreover, coupled with the CSP, students will deepen their understanding of the structures and processes of privilege, exclusion, and marginalization that shape healthcare in the United States.

ARTS 275: Ethics, Art and Medicine: PPE Portrait Project in Action

4 credits, facilitated by Prof. Heffernan, Art & Art History

T/Th 1:30-4pm

Students will apply what they learn in their coursework to become involved in the project as artists-scientists-ethicists. Students will activate a PPE Portrait Project site in their hometowns, or substantively assist with work at one of the existing project sites. At the end of the semester, students will perform a meta-analysis of the project, connecting its components to the larger social and historical context, and reflecting synthetically on what they learned in this program.

Note: This Oxy Immersive Semester program carries 12 units. Full-time students enrolled in this program may choose to take an additional course(s) from the regular course offerings to build up to a maximum of 18 units.

Note: If you are considering a career in health professions, we recommend that you consult with Kat Wang in the pre-health advising office to ensure that participation in this Oxy Immersive Semester program aligns with your intended major curriculum and your preparation for graduate/medical school. You can contact them at or book an appointment here.

More about the PPE Portrait project:

The PPE Portrait Project was cited as an exemplary integration of arts, humanities and science in the 2018 The National Academies of Sciences-Engineering-Medicine Consensus Report, The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in Higher Education: Branches from the Same Tree (Washington, DC: The National Academies Press). The PPE Portrait Project COVID response is published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, with two research presentations at the American Academy of Communication in Healthcare Conference. The project will be featured in the peer-reviewed Art Journal Open, in July 2020, where Prof. Heffernan discusses the ethics of the project and social practice art with Berkeley art historian Julia Bryan Wilson. The current reactivation of the project for COVID has been widely praised in the art and popular press, including:

Professional Blogs:

Stanford Medical School Website
The Arnold P. Gold Foundation
Occidental College News

Top photos: Left, Doctor Santhi Kumar and Nurse Kristina Trubshaw, Critical Care Unit, USC-Keck Hospital, May 2020. (Photo by USC-Keck Critical Care). Center, Nurse Anna Chico was among the first to use PPE Portraits in the COVID pandemic. Stanford Express Care COVID testing clinic. April, 2020. (Photo by Cati Brown-Johnson). Right, Nurse Grace Zardon in the donning area of ELWA 2 Ebola Treatment Unit, Paynesville, Liberia. 2015. (Photo by Marc Campos).