Face hunger: Craving connection during Covid-19

As a portrait artist, Riva Lehrer says faces are her whole life. She’s also someone with spina bifida - and that means people give all kinds of unwelcome attention to her body. When that happens, her face has always been her ally. With our faces necessarily hidden under masks - she is navigating a new way of connecting with the world.

When you use your face to signal your humanity, what happens when it’s hidden by a mask?

First section of a three-part drawing of Sharrona Pearl that Riva Lehrer created during a Zoom call. Lehrer says she wanted to show how we’re all exposing our private lives over video calls, in ways that we never have before. (Riva Lehrer)

It's the strangest feeling during a pandemic:  to know that masks are both saving your life - and ruining it.

Riva Lehrer's face is something of a lifeline when she's out among strangers. She relies on it to send certain signals to the world.

"I am disabled and I'm unusual looking. I'm four foot nine. I wear really strangely visible orthopedic boots that get so much attention that they now have names and a fan club,"  Lehrer said wryly. 

"We who have unusual bodies or unusual movements or some kind of unusual presentation, we've often used our faces as ways to kind of manage people's reactions to us," explains Lehrer. "So our faces and our words are ways that we try to have a kind of martial arts - of using expectation and tossing it (back), like: look at me, meet my eyes, hear my words, look at my expression. I'm here, I'm present. I'm a person."

Riva Lehrer (Sharrona Pearl)

But Lehrer is also craving the sight of other people's faces during the pandemic; she calls it "face hunger." As a portrait artist and a medical school humanities instructor at Northwestern University, Lehrer's fascination with the human face is, quite literally, bone-deep.

As someone who was born with spina bifida, she is attuned to how upsetting it is when people stare at bodies different from their own. 

"Not only is it much harder to fight for myself, it's harder to be myself. I feel more in danger, I feel lonelier. I feel more blank to myself because my experiences masked out in the world are muffled and simplified. I feel literally and psychically and metaphorically muffled and reduced."

Portrait painting over Zoom

Lehrer is now teaching online, and has continued her portrait work throughout the months of COVID isolation. As people all over the world struggle with how to forge human connections via Zoom, Skype, and FaceTime, Riva's challenge is not just to connect, but somehow to capture the essence, and beauty, and quirkiness of her subject's face - all of it now reduced to pixels on a screen. 

The second of three drawings of Sharrona Pearl that Riva Lehrer created using a Zoom call. (Riva Lehrer)

"I always kind of knew this, but now I really know that all portraits are always just fragments … it's always about choices and edits and fragments," Lehrer says. "Disabled, people are so creative. If we can't do something the way we used to do it and we're capable of it, we will find a new way to do it. We will keep reinventing reality."

Riva has a complicated relationship with face masks, as the world moves closer to the one-year anniversary of pandemic lockdowns. As someone whose own health can be precarious, she  never  leaves home without a double-layer of protection. As an artist, she savours the creativity random strangers sometimes lavish on their masks - even as she yearns to see their faces.

"Each mask to me seems like you're playing a game of Clue and you look and you think this person has chosen this mask because it expresses some essential thing about who they are. So their aesthetic, their sense of humor, their level of anxiety, their awareness of where their nose might or might not be," Lehrer laughs. "'I'm sorry, sir. I can still see it!'" 

Lehrer created her self portrait Six Feet about a month into the pandemic, as she felt trapped inside her house, masks, and her own head. She says she was inspired by an old game of running a string between two tin cans so that two persons could talk to each other. The actual string between the parts of the portrait is six feet long. (Riva Lehrer)

Lehrer's work has been on display at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute, Yale University, and the United Nations, among other venues. Lehrer has recently published a memoir, Golem Girl,  the golem being a magically created monster in Jewish folklore. Although Riva doesn't recommend becoming a first-time author during an actual pandemic, she was undaunted in creating a cocktail for her book launch: 

Riva Lehrer's golem for all seasons (Submitted by Riva Lehrer)


Fill one glass mug with 7 ounces of water


1 shot of brandy

2 teaspoons turbinado sugar

Juice of 1/2 a large lemon or one whole lime

1-2 heaping tablespoons dried cranberries

6 sections torn dried mandarin oranges (available at Trader Joe's)

3 tablespoons torn chunks of candied dried ginger

Add ingredients to the mug of water. Cover the mug and place in fridge for 30 minutes, then the freezer for another 20-30 minutes. Stir well. Adjust sweetness to taste and eat with a spoon!


Fill one glass mug with 7 ounces of water


1 shot of brandy

2 teaspoons turbinado sugar

Juice of 1/2 a large lemon or one whole lime

1-2 heaping tablespoons dried cranberries

6 sections torn dried mandarin oranges (available at Trader Joe's)

3 tablespoons torn chunks of candied dried ginger

Add the brandy, ginger, lemon juice, and sugar to the mug of water. Microwave until almost boiling. Add the rest of the ingredients, cover the mug and let sit for 20 minutes. Microwave again until steaming. Stir well. Adjust sweetness to taste and eat with a spoon!


This recipe provides many mugs of happy monstering. Be an alchemist and whip up the real elixir:

Carefully clean, peel and chop 1 cup of ginger root. Put ginger in a blender with 2 cups water and blend till pulpy. Transfer to a 2 quart saucepan, fill with water, and boil for at least one hour. Strain the resulting juice and discard pulp. 

Replace the dried candied ginger and 1/3 of the water with ginger juice in the above recipe. It's good hot or cold, but I am partial to a hot monster.


This episode is jammed packed with glorious music selected by Riva Lehrer, specific tunes that are helping her through the pandemic. Songs by Joni Mitchell, Rufus Wainwright and David Bowie, among others. You can hear them on our Soundtrack for the Soul Playlist.


Written by Mary Hynes, Produced by Erin Noel.



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