Orlando Health employee, artist pays tribute to health care workers

Nelson Cardenas has created six wood-burned portraits of COVID-19 health care heroes to honor them — including two of his coworkers at Dr. P. Phillips Hospital.

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  • | 12:04 p.m. June 10, 2020
  • Southwest Orange
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Outside Orlando Health’s Dr. P. Phillips Hospital, six portraits of health care workers are displayed as a nod to those frontline workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

They’re not just any portraits, though. They were created using wood-burning and oil-painting techniques — created by one of the hospital’s own.

Nelson Cardenas, an Orlando-area resident who has worked as a prep cook at the hospital for six years, also is an acclaimed artist. This latest project of his serves as his contribution to promote positivity and healing throughout this unprecedented time.


Courtesy Orlando Health
Courtesy Orlando Health

Cardenas said he has been creating art since he was in the first grade, but he never took it seriously until middle school. 

A self-taught artist, Cardenas soaked up knowledge on art techniques, methods and anything he could get his hands on. He said he hasn’t had much instruction or influence from other artists. Rather, he stumbled into his own artistic style through research, as well as trial and error.

His preferred method is pyrography, the art of wood-burning designs. He loves working with power tools — whether painting on glass with a Dremel or burning a design using a Bernzomatic torch — to bring his visions to life. He also loves working on large-scale pieces.

“There’s no room for mistakes, because you can’t erase it,” he said. “Once you make the mark, you’re done.”

He painted for a while, although he ended up taking 10 years off to chase his dream of becoming a famous chef.

Cooking serves as one of his outlets for his creativity, but he couldn’t shake the artistry running in his veins. 

“My art was just going back with a vengeance,” he said. “It seemed like I had all these accumulated creative juices that just poured out, and I haven’t stopped ever since. It’s just become like a daily routine.”

And, his work with the blow torches has turned some heads, too. Bernzomatic reached out to him with an interest in his work, and he began partnering with the company for different projects. That’s when the idea for a project honoring health care workers came.



As the coronavirus began ravaging New York, Bernzomatic went to Cardenas and asked him to do one piece honoring health care workers.

“I thought about it and said, ‘You know, I’ll make these huge faces — 4 feet by 4 feet — on plywood,” Cardenas said. “Why don’t we create a whole series? ... They loved the idea. So initially they said three, and I was just painting like crazy. I was so immersed in what I was doing that I ended up making six of them.”

In fact, two of the pieces he created were of his own coworkers. He began by sketching the portraits on the plywood before burning in the design using the blow torches. Then, he went in with oil paint to add a splash of color. 

“Everybody’s so tired of hearing about COVID-19 … (here), people see something different, something inspiring, a little light at the end of the tunnel.” — Nelson Cardenas

“I pretty much have my image ready, and I start burning all the spots of the face where you see shadows,” he said. “As the image starts to appear and I see that eyes are there and different features, then I start applying paint to contrast the details. Sometimes I go back and forth — and I use the proper masks, because burning on oil paint is very toxic — and that’s how it starts to emerge.”

The project took Cardenas just 20 days. Normally, he said, it takes him about three to four weeks to create one painting. But this one was special.

“It was a privilege to be able to do that,” he said. “I did a nurse, a doctor, I did a person that works in food and nutrition, a person that delivers patients within the hospital, and another nurse. ... They’re holding everything together.”

The pieces have been on display in front of the emergency department for weeks. Although they’re exposed to the elements, they are protected by three coatings of varnish. Hospital administration currently is working to find a permanent location for the portraits.

“His donation of artwork serves as a source of joy and inspiration for all during these challenging times,” said Thibaut van Marcke, president of Dr. P. Phillips Hospital. “This gift is a tremendous act of generosity that demonstrates Nelson’s appreciation for his colleagues and others on the front lines of this pandemic. The hospital appreciates all that his donation represents.”

Cardenas is thrilled he was able to use his passion and talent to bring some inspiration to others. 

“I’ve been overwhelmed by the attention that it has brought,” he said. “Everybody’s so tired of hearing about COVID-19 … (here), people see something different, something inspiring, a little light at the end of the tunnel. … Everyone that comes through the emergency department takes out their phones and start taking pictures immediately. 

“It’s like the ultimate high for an artist, for people to be able to see your work and your creation,” he said. “It was made with love from the heart.”


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