This unexpected pandemic year has battered all of us, visual artists included. Health risks, isolation, and curtailed movement upended creative practices. Yet in the face of this heightened uncertainty, artists have continued doing what they do — delving into internal and external explorations and finding expression.
“Unmasked: Artful Responses to the Pandemic,” featuring artwork influenced by and created during the pandemic, opened this week at Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester. Through 10 galleries of SVAC’s Yester House, the show includes collaborative projects born of this time and work by over 40 individual artists. Chronicling this unusual time, isolation, connecting to the world are among the themes considered.
“This exhibition combines an exciting mix of artists, showcasing not only some of the tremendous talent that resides in the state of Vermont but also bringing national and even international perspectives into the conversation about COVID’s impact on artists,” explained Alison Crites, SVAC’s manager of exhibitions and interpretive engagement.
“What we hope will be especially meaningful for visitors is how these artful responses to the pandemic invite us all to consider the ways in which cultivating creativity in our own lives can help us cope with hardship.”
“Unmasked” draws viewers into artists’ creative responses to this time. It also features masks: selections from “Mask,” an exhibition held in late 2020 at the Vicki Myhren Gallery at the University of Denver. The exhibition considered how masks, now part of daily life, also offer opportunity for self-expression and creativity — fantastical to utilitarian.
“Mask Against Hate Virus,” a bejeweled pig snout mask by Sammy Lee borrows from Korean tradition of pig as good luck, as the back of the mask references the recent rise of anti-Asian hate crimes. “Incalculable Loss,” by Trey Duvall, a flowing white mask is made of hospital wristbands printed with names of people who have died from COVID-19.
One SVAC gallery is filled with scores of embroidered and stitched handkerchiefs, tea towels, gloves and other textiles of the Tiny Pricks project. Each piece bears stitched words of a quote by Donald Trump or those in his inner circle about the coronavirus.
“The Coronavirus is very much under control in the U.S.A” reads one tweet, stitched on a blue hospital mask. “No. I don’t take responsibility at all” is sewn into the Trump signed letter that accompanied CARES Act stimulus checks. “I mean everybody wants the rallies” reads red stitches on a baby bib.
Tiny Pricks was created by Diana Weymar as a public art project in 1918. Reacting to Trump’s “I am a very stable genius” statement, she stitched it into a piece of her grandmother’s set-aside embroidery. Around the country and world, thousands of others joined in, creating a handcrafted record of this presidency.
Boston’s Shelter in Place Gallery, founded by Eben Haines and Delaney Dameron, opened in March 2020, a miniature gallery four-foot square that presents artwork scaled to one inch equals one foot. Over 40 shows have been presented there thus far. At SVAC, these tiny artworks are accompanied by their gallery photos and full scale works by the same artists.
Work by Vermont artist Dana Walrath fills one gallery. Her recent work continues a series she began in 2016 exploring the intersection of language, oppression and genocide. On pages of large-scale interactive books with three-part drawings (“exquisite corpse” layout), figures morph from human to beast to vermin to parasite, a dehumanizing of “the other.”
“New Forms of Connection” are considered in one gallery, with artists’ approaches to building connectivity. Pairs of images from the “Photographer’s Workroom” collective were developed through a “Call and Response” process. One artist takes a photograph that is presented to the group. Another chooses an element of that image and responds with a second image creating a visual conversation between them.
Several works consider chronicling the pandemic.
“Delineations,” a large map-like piece, “documents observations of everyday life, situations, findings and happenings in and around the greater Burlington area during the first 10 months of the pandemic,” Ross Sheehan explains on his website.
Initially looking abstract, the painting becomes recognizable as Burlington, with land and lake, lines trailing through the topography. Up close, block letters in black and blue fill the canvas, spelling out Sheehan’s observations.
Helen Ellis created a book every day from found objects, bringing many together in her work “My Endless Numbered Days.” In “Pandemic Journal” with watercolor and pencil drawings, Linda Rubinstein reflects on personal and global events.
In another direction, Susan Weiss, a Manchester-area artist and teacher at SVAC, took an artistic and humorous look at one aspect of pandemic experience, the once scarce toilet paper roll. She cleverly considers it in the style of Andy Warhol, James Turrell and others.
Nature and home are among other aspects of pandemic life explored in this extensive, timely, and in depth exhibition. SVAC is open and observing health and safety protocols to allow the public to visit during this time. Also at SVAC, “Out of the Vault,” drawn from its permanent collection, is at their Wilson Museum.
“I think people are looking for things for connections, but looking to still be safe. One thing we can do is offer a space where you can view art safely,” Anne Corso, director of SVAC, said. “The nature of our campus and our size and the layout of our buildings allow that. You can come through and see the art without being on top of somebody else.”