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Mary Beth Heffernan: From the Studio to the Hospital Ward

Occidental College professor Mary Beth Heffernan photographs health care worker Roseline Biego, R.N. at ELWA II ETU (Ebola treatment unit) in Monrovia, Liberia on Sunday, March 1, 2015. The photos will be used in Professor Heffernan’s PPE Portrait Project. (Photo by Marc Campos, Occidental

Mary Beth Heffernan, a Los Angeles based artist, brings together corporeality and imagery through various media. Her work examines deep questions about how bodies and their experiences are represented in digital and physical forms.

Image of Mary Beth Heffernan.
Mary Beth Heffernan
Marc Campos

One of Heffernan’s most notable projects, the PPE Portrait Project, began in 2014 to humanize the protective gear of Ebola workers in Liberia. By placing portraits on protective equipment, the project helped mitigate fear and foster connections between healthcare workers and patients. The initiative gained international attention and was adapted for COVID-19 response, impacting healthcare settings worldwide, including major institutions like Stanford Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

During her 2016-17 residency at The Huntington Library as part of the PAC/LA Contemporary Artist Grant, Heffernan considered the purpose and implications of an 18th-century anatomy textbook bound in human skin. This inquiry highlighted the ethical and historical narratives bound within medical artifacts.

Heffernan’s work is supported by several prestigious awards and grants, including the COLA Master Artist Fellowship and contributions from the Arnold P. Gold Foundation and the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. Her art is featured in significant collections such as The Huntington Library, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Royal College of Nursing-Great Britain Archive.

Photo of Health care workers make their rounds as they care for patients, including two new patients, in the ELWA II ETU (Ebola treatment unit), Monrovia, Liberia on Monday, March 9, 2015. Occidental College professor Mary Beth Heffernan’s PPE Portrait Project involves creating wearable portraits of the health care workers who must wear PPE (personal protective equipment) when working with patients. (Photo by Marc Campos, Occidental College Photographer), 2015.
Health care workers make their rounds as they care for patients, including two new patients, in the ELWA II ETU (Ebola treatment unit), Monrovia, Liberia on Monday, March 9, 2015. Marc Campos, Occidental College Photographer

Through a large number of her projects, Heffernan consistently demonstrates how art can influence public health and patient care by adding layers of empathy and understanding to clinical environments.

She is a Professor of Sculpture, Photography, and Interdisciplinary Art at Occidental College, with a BFA from Boston University and an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts. To learn more about Heffernan and to view her work, visit

*All images and information is © Mary Beth Heffernan unless otherwise stated.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Public Health Landscape or Valent BioSciences, LLC.

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