MANCHESTER — How do artists use their creativity to tell their stories of the COVID-19 pandemic, and connect with the wider world, when the universe of galleries, museums, studios and fellow artists is shut off by stay-at-home orders and gathering bans?
That’s the question “Unmasked: Artful Responses to the Pandemic” will explore when the exhibit opens on Wednesday, Jan. 16 at Southern Vermont Arts Center. The exhibit runs through March 28.
The show, housed in SVAC’s historic Yester House gallery, brings together new works from artists in a wide range of media, from three-dimensional sculpture and fiber arts to pen and ink, watercolor and oil on canvas.
“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,” Alison Crites, SVAC’s manager of exhibitions and interpretive engagement, said of the exhibit.
“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,” Crites said.
It’s the second straight year that SVAC executive director Anne Corso has sought winter programing for the purpose of drawing residents up the arts center’s winding access road to its galleries.
“We hope it’s meaningful and relevant to our local audience, as we stay open in these the dark months, literally and figuratively,” Corso said.
What Crites set out to achieve, Corso said, was “create an exhibition that felt very contemporary and brought together many artists we have never shown — particularly in the context of historic Yester House.”
“Unmasked” will be mounted throughout the rooms of the 1917 Colonial Revival-style home, which houses galleries and SVAC’s offices. In a work space where some of the art is being stored, the exhibit plan is literally on the wall, with themes written on painters’ tape and photos of the art tacked underneath.
What patrons will see when the exhibit opens are the ways artists have been affected by the pandemic, and the way they have used their creativity to respond.
“Their lives have been transformed in very different ways,” Corso said. “The artist who lives in the Northeast Kingdom is thinking of nature as a refuge and responding to that. Artists who are in more urban populations are seeing the devastation of people with COVID and how it’s hurting a particular segment of our collective community, and responding with more pointed imagery. Some is political, some is humorous, some is sad and poignant and some can be all of those at any given time.”
That was evident in a pre-exhibit tour through some of the works.
A pair of abstract oils on canvas by SVAC member Irene Cole of Manchester suggest feelings of isolation and anxiety. In one of Cole’s paintings, “Niki,” a female figure sits reclined in a chair, but lacks facial features. In the foreground of “Journey,” another figure sits in a fetal position, in front of a pale blue background; beyond are suggestions of figures and whirling activity, all out of focus.
In contrast, a series of delicate watercolors by Dianne Shullenberger of Jericho show inspiration from her own garden — “things that were blooming and bringing her joy,” Corso said. Within the constraints of 5-by-5 inch paper cards are tightly composed nature studies, offering a contrast of intricate design and vivid color.
Ross Sheehan’s “Delineations” takes environment in another direction entirely. What appears at first glance an abstract exercise in line and color proves upon closer inspection to be a map of greater Burlington. Much like a map, the closer one approaches, the more detail is revealed.
Some of the work shows the playfulness and creativity that comes out of months of isolation.
The “Tiny Pricks Project,” created and curated by Donna Weymar, offers a collection of Donald Trump’s COVID-19 tweets memorialized in embroidery, walking the line between decorative folk art, historical record and political statement.
In “Kaira Quarantined,” Barbara Ishikura’s subject sits contentedly in a living room chair, and the acrylic pastel hues suggest warmth and comfort. In another Ishikura painting, “Self-Portrait,” she’s at home, topless and holding a glass of wine, living her best quarantine life. (That painting’s installation comes equipped with a cloth and rope.)
“It’s meaningful and relevant to our local audience, as we stay open in these the dark months literally and figuratively as we wait for things to lighten up,” Corso said.
There will not an opening reception, thanks to the pandemic. “In my wildest dreams if things were better by mid-March we’d have a closing,” Corso said. “The one thing we can do very very safely here is offer people the ability to see art without crowds.”
How does it feel to open a new exhibit, even with pandemic constraints?
“It’s so rewarding just to be able to put art on the wall and to see people come through,” Corso said. “Some days that might be two people it might be 20 people. But I think people are craving some sort of experience. And the art is the one thing we can give them.”