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'Not just a number' | Artist creates portrait series to honor lives lost to COVID

"They're not just numbers. These are people who had hopes, who had dreams, who had families, who are missed," the artist said.

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Three years into COVID, and it's easy for all the numbers shared each day to blur into the background of daily life.

To date, there have more than 980,000 deaths in the U.S. due to COVID. 

Artist Leslie Murphy wants to ensure these fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, friends – are remembered as more than just numbers.

The metro Atlanta artist lost her own parents several years ago and in her grief, she immersed herself in art.

"It was literally my saving grace," Murphy told 11Alive's Liza Lucas. "Just knowing how art helped me through that dark period made me really want to reach out to other families who were going through this heartbreaking loss."

The "Not Just a Number" portrait series is an act of love for Murphy, who has completed nearly 30 portraits so far. Each takes around 10 hours to complete, she said, and each portrait has been created for families for free thanks to fundraising efforts. 

Nancy Gallegos, who lives in Huntington, California, recently received a portrait of her dad, Raymond Nicacio Gonzalez. Gonzalez passed away from COVID in December of 2020. 

"He was such a fun person," Gallegos said. "He was a friend to everyone. My dad loved to take tequila shots, so if he met you for the first time, he would have said 'hey, here's a tequila shot, let's do a shot together.'"

Since losing her father, Gallegos has sought ways to hold on to her dad's joy for life and honor his memory. 

"I've been trying to honor him in every single way since he's died," she said. 

Gallegos is among the families across the country who discovered Murphy's work.

The process is a deeply personal one for families and Murphy. In an effort to highlight the humanity behind the number of COVID deaths, Murphy works with families to incorporate memories, letters, and more, woven into the portraits. 

"Happy loving, caring, life of the party," Gallegos said of her dad, all of which she shared with Murphy for the portrait. "She brought it to life in this picture and I couldn't believe it when I saw it."

Murphy added that the subjects of her portraits are not just numbers, adding "these are people who had hopes, who had dreams, who had families, who are missed."

She has been fundraising to help support the project. Join the artist on her Patreon page to help families dealing with loss.

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