"As far as I'm concerned, this is the most important body of work I've ever done," said artist Maria Bennett Hock
Duke University Hospital essential staff 45 in 45
The portraits of the frontline workers at Duke University Hospital
| Credit: Maria Hock/Duke Health

An artist has honored 45 employees at a North Carolina hospital by painting their portraits in a total of 45 days.

Over the course of two months in the fall, Maria Bennett Hock managed to paint individual oil portraits of 45 employees at Duke University Medical Center, according to her Instagram.

Painted in collaboration with the hospital and Arts and Health at Duke, Hock said her portraits were displayed at Duke University Medical Center for the month of January.

They were later given to the essential staff on March 10 during a "Meet the Artist" ceremony, she noted on Instagram.

"As far as I'm concerned, this is the most important body of work I've ever done," the artist told NBC affiliate WRAL.

Duke University Hospital essential staff 45 in 45
The portrait of Frankie
| Credit: Maria Hock/Duke Health

Hock tells PEOPLE her initial plan was to paint 30 portraits in 30 days "to highlight the gravity of the environment in which hospital employees have encountered during this pandemic."

"I also wanted to make sure the nominations included the whole staff, maintenance crew, food service employees and many others who are not normally spotlighted," she explains. "The hospital put out a call for nominations to participate, and 45 people were nominated."

"I decided after painting for a few days, I could not exclude the extra 15 nominations so requested permission to paint all 45," she adds. "It was approved so I continued on."

Duke University Hospital essential staff 45 in 45
The portrait of Aaron
| Credit: Maria Hock/Duke Health

Because she was unable to visit the hospital due to COVID restrictions, Hock asked the nominees to send her selfies that she could base her paintings on.

"I asked for them to be taken at the end of the day when the workers were tired," she explains. "Having the subjects look tired and concerned provided the feeling I wanted to convey."

On Oct. 30, Hock unveiled her first portrait: an oil painting of a woman named Anna wearing a mask.

Duke University Hospital essential staff 45 in 45
The portrait of Katherine
| Credit: Maria Hock/Duke Health

From there, she continued to paint one portrait each day — each showing the staff member wearing a mask or shield — until her final one came on Dec. 15.

"They were painted with broad expressive strokes emphasizing the feelings I got from the photos," she explains. "It was truly an emotional project."

"These people put their lives on the line," Hock added to WRAL. "Sometimes I look at them and I just cry, thinking about them and what they're doing."

Duke University Hospital essential staff 45 in 45
A portrait of Tammy
| Credit: Maria Hock/Duke Health

Once finished, the hospital displayed Hock's works of art until Wednesday when the nominees were finally able to take their portraits home, WRAL reported.

"The response has been overwhelming," Hock tells PEOPLE. "The portraits were all gifted to the staff members; I was allowed to go to the hospital for that."

"They were so very appreciative of the recognition of their work," she added. "I have also been overwhelmed by the response on my social media. Everyone was so very positive and cheered me on each day as I posted."

As of Thursday, there have been at least 29.2 million cases and 529,662 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the United States, according to the New York Times.

In North Carolina, there have been at least 882,489 cases and 11,628 deaths linked to the virus, the Times reported.

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