Hospital Chef Uses Blowtorch to Create Stunning Portraits of Frontline Workers

Nelson Cardenas' art now welcomes patients to Dr. P. Phillips Hospital in Orlando, Florida amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The images jump out at the viewer immediately: soulful eyes peeking out from above masks on faces burned into squares of brightly-painted wood. A Florida artist and chef has created six stunning portraits of frontline workers to welcome visitors and patients to an Orlando hospital amid the coronavirus pandemic.

By day, Nelson Cardenas takes pride in cooking nutritious meals for the patients at the Dr. P. Phillips Hospital. But outside the hospital's kitchen, Cardenas is also an accomplished, self-taught artist who uses both a paintbrush and a blowtorch to craft his art in a technique known as pyrography. 

Amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, Cardenas was asked to paint a mural honoring healthcare workers by the hospital and the company that creates the blowtorches he uses in his art, Bernzomatic. So Cardenas turned to his colleagues for inspiration.

"I said, 'Why don't we use real people for this? Why don't we use the healthcare workers that are out there battling the pandemic?'" Cardenas told "These are the people that are in the pandemic fighting: we have nurses, we have doctors, we have people that deliver food to the patients, people that transport patients and people that maintain the rooms super clean and sanitized." 

Among the frontline workers Cardenas painted is Tina Grace, a mother of six who works in the hospital's environmental services department cleaning and sanitizing patients' rooms. From under her personal protective equipment, Grace said she tries to reassure patients who might be feeling scared. 

"You get attached to some of the patients, you get attached to some of the staff, and we become family," Grace told "It becomes more than just a 9-to-5 job. And in this situation, with the whole coronavirus pandemic, we have to stick together, because we're going to get through this." 

Cardenas feels the same way about his job in the hospital's kitchen, where he has worked for six years. 

"I take a lot of pride in what I do," he said. "I feel that in order for people to come back to health, they also need to eat a well-balanced, nutritious meal."

To craft the portraits, Cardenas worked off of photographs of his subjects, sketching their faces onto large wooden panels. He then used both his blowtorch and his paintbrush to bring them to life, working more than 100 hours to create all six. 

Grace said when she saw Cardenas' portrait of her, she was honored. 

"It's a bit emotional, because I never thought that it would be so important," Grace said. "I just clean a room in the hospital, but it's more than that. I'm also risking my life, just like any other nurse or a doctor."

"All the other workers, the silent ones — the kitchen people, the maintenance people and the people that stock the rooms — we're still doing the same thing as nurses and doctors. And to get recognition, it's a big honor," she added. 

What stands out most in Cardenas' portraits are his subjects' eyes, which seem to leap off the wooden canvases. 

"When I took pictures of Tina and another one of my coworkers and I looked at the actual image, I was surprised by the eyes. The expression of the eyes was so beautiful, and I wanted to highlight that as much as I could," Cardenas said. "It symbolizes the light at the end of the tunnel, because I know we're going to come out of this. These paintings are kind of like the avenue to give us hope."