As the recent lockdown hit, my community art space in Arlington, Virginia, Studio Pause, closed to the public. People asked me to take our weekly writing PAUSE sessions online, shared links for bookmaking videos from my website, and even quoted my Instagram posts on their social media. I did phone calls with worried children who had made art for me, their art teacher. I got emails from seniors asking what creative things I do to stay calm. At the studio, I had experienced people’s discomfort during the two federal shutdowns we had in Washington D.C. Then there was anger. Now there is panic.
In early April I got an email from Special Projects Curator for Arlington Cultural Affairs Cynthia Connolly asking for “a super-fast and fun art project.” I had previously worked with Connolly on Columbia Pike Recipes for You, a community book arts project, and Words to Art: Art on the ART Bus, where I collaborated with bus drivers. I created a new version of Words to Art asking the public to collaborate this time. Connolly decided to bring four other Arlington artists into the project. Words to Art Spring 2020: A Community Art Project by Sushmita Mazumdar & Arlington Arts, which would run for four weeks.
Every Monday, this online project invites the public to share one word expressing their feelings about the COVID-19 quarantine. Artists select a word from the submissions and create artworks inspired by them. The public follows their creative process through the weekend via social media as the artworks are shared. The finished works are posted at the Arlington Arts website and at my Studio Pause website.
For Week One, I picked the word Non-Essential to work on. It was submitted by Rosendo Escareno. Describing my artwork I wrote, “I love the power conveyed by thick strokes of Chinese ink, so I used it to write the 2 Ns in ‘non’. As I wrote the word ‘non’ over and over with water-soluble crayons, I thought of how many of us were suddenly declared ‘non-essential.’ Yet in my home, I had decided that I would be the only one to go shopping for groceries. I had made myself essential! I even swapped some ‘non’ for ‘mom.’”
Chastened, submitted by Frank Higgins, was rendered by David Amoroso. Speaking to Arlington Magazine, Amoroso notes that since the pandemic, he’s had major paradigm shifts. “Now, everything and everybody feels a little like the enemy.” Art has always been his therapy, he says, bright colors and pop culture subjects. However, there is a distinct change in the look of the art he created for this project—they are black and white. “The words I have selected so far—chastened and broken—really speak to what’s going on inside me.”
Survival was submitted by Lloyd Wolfe and rendered by Maribeth Egan, a mixed media artist and arts educator. Her collage includes a visual bombardment of natural forces threatening to obscure the word. A cartoon hand in the background suggests a route to survival: wash your hands. She uses collage, ink jet, gouache, and embroidery floss on paper to create the desired effect. Maribeth firmly believes everyone should learn to value creativity, make art, and is happy to support that effort. In her art practice, she combines a variety of materials with paint, investigating what rankles or delights her at a given time.
Stuck was submitted by Leigh Bailey and rendered by MasPaz, who spends the majority of his time traveling, teaching and painting murals across the world. His digital illustration represents people who choose to not leave their homes in order to protect their family, yet do not have enough money to feed their children. In his home country of Colombia, those in need of help, hang a red flag outside of their homes.
I used the artworks as visual prompts for my writing PAUSE sessions, where studio members craft short free-writes inspired by art. Kori Johnson was immediately drawn to Stuck. She wrote, “In Colombia, you hang a red flag outside your door to signal you need help. I wonder if that would work here. Would anyone hang a flag? Would anyone come to help? What red flags would we wave if we could get help without judgment? What flags do we ignore, even when they are right in front of our faces?”
An excerpt from studio member Mary Louise Marino who took a poetic approach:
an unsafe outside
and insecure inside
unable to stretch
and grounding our feet
in the foundation of our home
we become heavy lines
stiff and stuck”
Lonely, submitted by Colleen Moore, was rendered by Kate Fleming, who has spent her isolation making oil paintings of toilet paper – a playful, yet poignant nod to one of COVID’s hottest commodities. In response to this, studio member Ruben Villalta wrote, “I would like to write about the picture of the toilet paper, to think about something happier than the disastrous COVID-19.” Villalta remembered attending an art talk in El Salvador by Antonio Cañas, who discussed his Warhol-style painting of Daria, the popular 90’s MTV cartoon character, with rolls of toilet paper behind her. It was a symbol of protest against the status quo of societal consumerism.
Enthusiasm grows. People loved the statements the artists were sharing, and also the photos of them working. I am excited to see this project help us express our emotions and feelings in different ways and make them visual. I am enjoying the public response and present a new question to explore—is the artist essential?
Sushmita Mazumdar taught herself to be a writer and book artist, writing stories from her childhood, after a 15-year career in advertising in India and the US. Encouraging everyone to share their stories of home, heritage, and migration through art, she opened Studio Pause in 2013, mixing community voices into her own work, allowing cross-cultural collaborations and dialogues to inform her creations.