Artist Mera Ragsdale of Knoxville watched in 2020 as her best friend, Elizabeth Phillips, reported to work each day at University of Tennessee Medical Center during those first uncertain months of the coronavirus pandemic.
“She’s a physical therapist, but she was working on the COVID ward, all hours, when she had two kids at home and found out she was pregnant again,” Ragsdale remembered. “It was frustrating to me that some people couldn’t be bothered to put on a mask while she was literally risking her life and her family’s lives to care for them.”
Ragsdale, a 2018 graduate of Pellissippi State Community College with a degree in Studio Arts, was finishing her thesis at the University of Tennessee when she had the idea to capture that moment in time – the weariness and steadfastness of frontline medical workers.
She donated the painting to Pellissippi State’s Strawberry Plains Campus on Thursday, Nov. 10, in honor of the college’s Nursing program. Pellissippi State offers Nursing on its Strawberry Plains, Magnolia Avenue and Blount County campuses.
“This picture depicts the quiet determination that nurses develop through the combination of difficult situations, connections with others and being part of miracles that happen every day in health care,” said Pellissippi State interim Nursing Dean Jessica Belnap. “There is a reason that nurses do what they do – there is no greater gift that can be given than to care for someone else in their time of need.”
Ragdale’s painting, Dr. Phillips and Laura, is “larger than life,” she said. At 5 feet wide by 8 feet tall, it is Ragsdale’s largest, with her friend looking directly at the viewer.
“I tend to depict women and feminist views in my paintings, and I like to use my friends and family for that emotional connection,” Ragsdale explained. “This is my best friend of 20 years, and she’s confronting the viewer from the painting, asking the viewer to think about what you’re looking at.”
Although the painting was created in two panels for easier transport, the finished piece was too large for Ragsdale’s house. It needed to be displayed on a large wall, and the artist “didn’t want it to sit and gather dust,” she said.
That’s when Ragsdale decided to reach out to her former Studio Arts professors at Pellissippi State, to see if the college might be interested in the painting.
“I really appreciated my Pellissippi State professors, and I wanted to give back,” Ragsdale said.
Ragsdale was in her 30s when she started classes at Pellissippi State, with a toddler at home and another child on the way. She said she knew as soon as she took her first oil painting class, “This is it.”
“I always had loved art, and after having kids, I felt more inclined to pursue my dreams to show them that it’s never too late,” Ragsdale explained. “My oldest has memories of me going to school and coming to my shows at Pellissippi State.”
Ragsdale enjoyed the one-on-one attention she received from her Studio Arts professors, who became mentors to her, and took advantage of other life-changing opportunities at Pellissippi State, such as studying abroad in Italy one summer.
“Everyone at Pellissippi State was so knowledgeable, helpful and kind,” Ragsdale said.
Ragsdale graduated from UT in 2020 and now works primarily in painting, though she also does printing and sometimes combines the two.
“So many young artists are told, ‘You won’t make any money,’ or ‘You’ll be a starving artist,’ but there are lots of avenues for people who make art – it’s not just galleries,” Ragsdale said. “If art is something you’re passionate about and willing to work hard for, it’s worth pursuing. It’s exciting and a lot of fun, and I love the Knoxville art community.”
You can view Ragsdale’s painting on Pellissippi State’s Strawberry Plains Campus, 7201 Strawberry Plains Pike, 8-4:30 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. The painting, which can be viewed from the lobby, hangs prominently beside the stairwell that leads up to the Nursing program.