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Artist’s portraits capture our plague year

Painter Phil Gayter started portraying medical professionals in masks. He just may be onto something.

Artist Phil Gayter’s portrait shows Mount Sinai Hospital nurse Herbert Wandaki holding out his hands, as COVID viruses fall like rain.
Artist Phil Gayter “wanted to bring COVID to life as the rain we’re in,” in his portrait of Mount Sinai intensive care unit nurse Herbert Wandaki, finding “an element of drama to that.” He portrayed Wandaki amid COVID viruses falling like rain.
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The mask.

We spend so much time complaining about wearing it, we might not have noticed how much the mask has come to define the past year, physically, emotionally and, yes, visually.

But Phil Gayter, artist and ad man, has noticed, and is painting a series of masked portraits.

“I decided to do a self-portrait, painting myself with bright yellow gloves and an N95 mask. That was the start,” said Gayter, who lives in Highland Park. “It was going to be a one-off. As the pandemic was setting in, I was spending more and more time at home, I had my daughter over, and I did a portrait of her in a mask.”

Artists tend to work in themes — blue periods, haystacks series and such. Gayter saw potential in the masked subject.

“All of a sudden I thought something’s going on here that I really, really like,” he said. “A coming together of myself as an artist and a business thinker, coming up with an idea that holds together. That’s what I do for my clients, create branded messages. The mask proved to be that point of distinction, allowing me to think of a collection of paintings that capture the moment, poignant yet whimsical.”

Gayter, 63, was born in England.

”I went to Manchester Metropolitan School of Art and studied as a fine artist,” he said. “But being a working-class kid, being a painter was not going to make me financially secure, so I moved into advertising.”

Mount Sinai infectious disease specialist Dr. Sunita Mohapatra, painted by artist Phil Gayter. He researched the symbolism of roses for this portrait’ deep pink represents “thankfulness,” Gayter said.
Artist Phil Gayter researched the symbolism of roses for his portrait of Mount Sinai infectious disease specialist Dr. Sunita Mohapatra. Deep pink represents “thankfulness.”
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Which brought him to Chicago in 1988, to work for Leo Burnett.

“Like a lot of immigrants, I came for a year and then stayed.”

Being an artist, Gayter wants people to see his new series. He doesn’t have a gallery, yet, so he showed them to a friend.

“I’ve known Phil for a while,” said Karen Teitelbaum, president and CEO of Sinai Health Systems. “I’ve alway found his portraits to be his best work. The early portraits in the COVID series, the mask series, I thought they were playful, clever, I thought of the way to capture this moment in time, this pandemic, that hopefully we never see again. I told him how much I loved the portraits. I wasn’t thinking of our own caregivers. He said I really would love to do a few health care workers.”

He’s painted 18 masked portraits so far, three of Sinai medical personnel, including medical intensive care unit nurse Herbert Wandaki, who said being the subject of a painting was a bright spot in a hard year.

“It has given a glimmer of hope in this otherwise very challenging time,” said Wandaki. “I thought he captured this very difficult moment in a really artistic way.”

“Masked man,” a self-portrait by artist Phil Gayter.
“Masked man” is Phil Gayter’s initial self-portrait that started the series.
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Gayter has one eye on history when doing the paintings.

“I’ve been studying the work of Caravaggio, his use of really hot light,” he said. “That felt like a natural element, as well as the black background. I wanted them to have a contemporary feel, based in classics. I posed them. I knew exactly how I wanted to portray them.”

The other eye, of course, is on commerce. Art is a business as well as, umm, an art, and Gayter is aware of that.

“It’s a challenge for artists,” he said. “Like music, it’s not necessarily about how good you are. It’s about having a story to tell that captures the imagination, becomes a springboard to becoming a known artist. I am actively looking for a gallery. I’d like to have one of these paintings hanging in every hospital in the area. Celebrating work being done by all essential workers.”

Gayter plans to do about 30.

“Marla and Wayne,” a portrait by Phil Gayter.
Not all of Phil Gayter’s masked portraits depict doctors. His latest is “Marla and Wayne.”
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I wondered if Mount Sinai would pick up some — Gayter charges around $5,000 for a painting.

Teitelbaum said she thinks the hospital will end up with a few, receiving “the friends and family discount.”

Not that this is all about selling paintings.

“If I don’t sell one, I don’t mind,” said Gayter. “The last thing on my mind is selling. It’s notoriety, and building awareness, to get to a point where people will want to purchase the art, because of the notoriety. ... Putting all the elements together has really driven me. I wake up every morning and I can’t wait to get to the next one. It is a collection that will outlive me.”

“Clorox,” by Phil Gayter, is a portrait of his twin brother, Paul Gayter, also an artist.
“Clorox,” by Phil Gayter, is a portrait of his twin brother, Paul Gayter, also an artist.
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“Liam,” a portrait Phil Gayter painted of his son.
“Liam” is a portrait Phil Gayter painted of his son.
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“Rain” is a portrait of Phil Gayter’s daughter.
“Rain” is a portrait of Phil Gayter’s daughter.
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