Meet a Parkview RN who painted a mural, commemorating his coworkers’ experience during the pandemic

Walking through Parkview Regional Medical Center to the Parkview Heart Institute, you’ll see a mural of masked doctors and nurses, caregivers praying together in scrubs, vaccinations being distributed, and then coworkers, families, and friends gathering once again.
 
The artist, Jason O’Connell, 51, is an RN at Parkview Heart Institute. From left to right, the mural depicts the likeness of his real-life coworkers and commemorates their heroic work throughout the pandemic, caring for Fort Wayne patients on the frontlines and distributing vaccines. Ultimately, it offers a message of “hope” to the community for better days ahead.
 
“It’s important for me to keep in mind that there’s joy in the world despite the struggles we have,” O’Connell says in a video on Parkview’s website.
 
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, it forced O’Connell and many of his coworkers to relearn how to do their jobs and to deal with the harrowing situation day-in and day-out. As an artist in his spare time, with work available online, by commission, and at Gallery K, he used the experience to inspire his first mural project, created in partnership with Parkview.
 
Input Fort Wayne sat down with O’Connell to learn more about his background as an artist and a nurse, his experience during the pandemic, and what’s next for him.

A pandemic-inspired mural by Jason O’Connell, 51, an RN at Parkview Heart Institute.

 
IFW: Give us some background on yourself.
 
JO: I was born in Canada, but grew up in this area. In my early 20s, I took a trip West, including stops in California and Oregon and ended up halfway home in Colorado. Once I lived in Colorado for a few months, I realized the cost of living was lower in Fort Wayne, and I had family members who lived here, so homesickness brought me back.
 
IFW: Tell us about your experience working at Parkview before the pandemic.
 
JO: I’ve worked for Parkview for 15 years. I spent the first three years as an LPN in a family practice office. I’ve spent the last 12 years as a bedside nurse in progressive cardiac units. I worked in Telemetry (heart) when I started. The first three years were rough, high acuity and a high patient-to-staff ratio. I switched to a Heart Failure unit. I feel it suits my qualities as a nurse. The pace is slower; the medications are easier to manage. My role as a Heart Failure nurse, before the pandemic, was doable.
 
IFW: The pandemic has been an extremely challenging time, not only for communities and families, but especially for healthcare providers. How has the pandemic impacted your work at Parkview?
 
JO: The pandemic forced Intensive Care Units (ICUs) to shift their patients. COVID patients took the place of other patients; those patients were moved out of ICU and into progressive units. While our patient volumes didn’t increase, their level of acuity did. We were caring for patients who were more difficult to care for than the patients we had before the pandemic. We were struggling to keep up.
 
The pandemic brought new gear and new protocols, as well. Every day, we were taught new methods to care for our patients and to take care of ourselves and to protect ourselves. Learning new information is stressful when you feel like you’re already struggling to keep up.
 
IFW: You’ve completed a mural at Parkview Heart Institute, commemorating your coworkers and their experiences during the pandemic. How did this project come to fruition?
 
JO: I’ve done artwork for as long as I can remember. I’ve been a fan of Thomas Hart Benton’s mural work for more than 25 years. I watched a documentary on Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals and was completely enthralled. I was determined to paint a mural.

Art by Parkview RN and artist Jason O’Connell.
 
Events in our lives sometimes coincide to bring new events to fruition. Two friends, one lives in Oregon (Nathaniel “Nate” Clinton), another works here at the hospital (Courtney Goeglein), both started encouraging me to paint a mural late in the fall of 2020. They don’t know each other, but thanks to Facebook, I was hearing the same message: “Paint a mural,” from two directions—one unknown to the other.
 
Images began to collect in my consciousness; I lay awake two nights in a row with the literal word “mural” repeating itself in my head (ever had a song stuck in your head?) while all the images coalesced. I had already gotten to know Mike GeRue, Chief Operating Officer of Parkview Heart Institute (our sons played soccer together). One day, I stopped him in our unit, and I told him Parkview needed a mural. He asked where we should put it. I knew what size I wanted, 8-by-24-feet, but not where a mural that size would fit. He suggested the Anticoagulation Therapy Unit (ATU) lobby, which is in the hallway that connects Parkview Heart Institute with Parkview Regional Medical Center. That’s where it's hanging now. All of that information was exchanged in our first discussion on the mural. I started taking pictures at work. Staff members posed for me; a few people supplied me with photos, and I found a few images on my own, outside of the hospital.
 
IFW: Tell us more about your background in the arts locally.
 
JO: I’ve created artwork in the typical media: Pastels, watercolor, ink, pencil, charcoal, acrylic, and oil. I prefer to paint in oil, but if I have a tight deadline, I’ll use acrylic paint for its quick drying time. The closest thing I’ve created to this size was an 8-by-8-foot chalk drawing for the Three Rivers Festival. Art by Parkview RN and artist Jason O’Connell.
 
Parkview has two other paintings of mine. One is on the third floor of the Parkview Heart Institute. The other is in the Ronald McDonald House on the PRMC campus. The Ronald McDonald House painting was used by Ronald McDonald House for a greeting card cover.
 
I had a show with Karla Alexander in August 2021 at the Georgetown Library. Karla suggested to Georgetown Library that they show my work with hers. That showing was my first with multiple works in a public place, thanks to Karla.
 
Currently, I have work for sale at Gallery K at 2445 Broadway Downtown.
 
IFW: Your mural takes shape in three panels installed on the wall. Tell us more about this piece and its composition. What does the mural depict, and what were some of your thought processes in developing this piece?
 
JO: I wanted to depict the physical, mental, and spiritual struggles we are facing in this pandemic, along with a depiction of a return to normal life. The mural reads from left to right. There’s sickness/death on the left, a cure in the middle, and a return to “normal” on the right. This can be seen as despair, work, and hope. There are other ideas and elements, but I think it’s important for a viewer to find their own meaning. They’ll often find meanings that are very significant in their own lives that I would never imagine. 
 
The mural’s name is La Vita e Bellissima (Italian for “Life is Beautiful”). I wanted the mural to convey a message of caring, hope, and love. It was my intention that the first panel show a universal spirit (God, Christ, other inferences work) who cares about what is happening to the human race; therefore, angels of sorrow, the reaching heavenly hand, the shielding forearm.

A pandemic-inspired mural by Jason O’Connell, 51, an RN at Parkview Heart Institute.
 
The verse from Matthew 8 is in the second panel. I’ve always read that verse as, “If you cared about me, you would heal me,” and “I do care about you. Be healed.” I want people to feel that a higher power cares about them specifically. People can come to their own conclusions.
 
The third panel is meant to depict the future. I want people to feel hope for a time with no masks and no social distancing, when people can gather together without fear. Therefore, I depicted friends together, family gathering, even kids at camp. (Summer camps were canceled in 2020; therefore, the fishing image, probably one of the less obvious images.)
 
IFW: When people see this mural, what is one emotion or takeaway you hope they experience, and why?
 
JO: The most important takeaway I want people to have is hope. Hope that everything will be normal again.
 
IFW: As cities across the U.S. emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, how do you believe the arts and murals like yours can help?
 
JO: As cities across the U.S. emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, they may face an ongoing mental health crisis as a result. I believe the arts, including murals like mine, can help people by expressing concern for suffering and loss. Artwork can encourage people. It can create images people can identify with. It can show that even a stranger can say, “I know how that heartache feels. Someone, somewhere out here in the wilderness, who you don’t even know, cares how you feel, and here’s visual proof. You’re not alone. I am supporting you even if it feels like you don’t have anyone who understands.”
 
Man is a social animal. Isn’t it interesting that we want someone to comfort us, and tell us they know how it feels, and most importantly, that they want us to feel better?
 
As a nurse and as an artist, my role is to make someone feel better by standing by them when they need someone to be with them. As a nurse, I may be delivering medicine. As an artist, I’m delivering beauty. Either way, I’m delivering care.
 
IFW: What’s next for you, as a Parkview coworker and/or an artist? Do you have any future plans for murals or art in Fort Wayne that we should keep on our radar?
 
JO: I’m content with my role as a bedside nurse. I always want my nursing role to be me with a patient, at their bedside, helping them into a brighter, healthier future.
 
As an artist, I have concrete plans and dreams. Concretely, I’m with Gallery K and have multiple pieces for sale. My website is joconnell1971.faso.com. I’m always taking commissions and, fortunately, have multiple customers patiently waiting for their paintings to be completed.
 
Less concretely, more tentatively, I am working to earn painting projects at various local churches and businesses in Fort Wayne, which would be both mural-sized and smaller-scale pieces. No promises have been made yet, but I’m hoping they agree to let me paint for them.

Art by Parkview RN and artist Jason O’Connell.
 
IFW: What advice would you give other hopeful artists in Fort Wayne?
 
JO: For new artists, if you want to sell a painting, talking and taking initiative is more important than painting. Find someone who needs you, and offer to help them by selling them a painting. Don’t make it about you. Make painting be about your customer.

For any artist (and for non-artists), consider the words of Antrese Wood literally, or as a metaphor for endeavors or for life: “Every canvas teaches you something for the next canvas.”
 
Always think of yourself as someone looking forward, and think in terms of growth. Forgive yourself for what you can’t do today, and know that today’s struggle earns you tomorrow’s success. You’re always going to improve if you have enough passion to do the work.
 
“Every canvas teaches you something for the next canvas.” 

This article was created in partnership with Parkview Health.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.