Julia Ballenger makes ceramic sculptures to fill the emptiness of social distancing. Textile artist Jeanna Wigger collects scraps from people who made face coverings early in the pandemic to transform them into a quilt, evoking quilting bees of yore — except with a quarantined twist.
Every few weeks, they get together, online, with other Boise creative types to share ideas, experiences, brainstorm — and collaborate. This is art coronavirus style: artists working apart to create something together.
While the world grapples with pandemic lockdowns, fears, anxieties and politics, artists, too, are absorbing the experience. They are synthesizing reality into manageable metaphors of artistic expression.
Three Boise arts organizations — Treefort Music Fest, Velma V. Morrison Center for the Performing Arts, and Boise City Department of Arts & History — formed a partnership to support art and artists during coronavirus. Together, they raised $69,000 for the COVID Cultural Commissioning Fund, or CCC. A jury awarded $1,000 grants to 69 local artists.
The mission was to pragmatically support artists financially, many of whom lost their source of revenue when performances and events were canceled, and to give artists the time and space to document their own experiences through the lens of creativity during the pandemic.
Circus artist Mykelle Walton is tackling a philosophical question about the purpose of work in a four-minute, 30-foot high aerial rope performance.
Wendy Blickenstaff tacked linoleum-block prints on to neighborhood utility poles — guerrilla style — to offer hope to passers by.
"Artists help to visualize meaningful ways to come to terms with this sudden new reality," says Lisa Hunt, interim director of the Keith and Catherine Stein World Museum at Boise State University. "Artists articulate our experience (by) exploring their individual reactions, voicing echoes of hope for a better society, pointing criticism at abuses of power."
During the Black Plague in Europe during the 1300s, for example, artistic work declined and was limited to the few private commissions for the aristocracy or the church. Grants like the CCC Fund make art accessible to all, she says.
"Unlike the past, today we know more, we can do more, and reach more. Artists provide us with touchstones and marvels that reach out to us across platforms."
Hip hop musician Irvin Brown is working on an album of original, collaborative music — an audio ethnography, he says — that tells the stories of people affected by the coronavirus and the economy — focusing on Black and Latino communities.
"This is a point in history that can't only be documented by historians," Brown says. "We have to be able to feel the emotions of these moments."
Ten years from now, or 20 or 30, he says, we can read about the pandemic: Oh, 2020, you know, we had to stay inside and wear masks.
But with art, "you'd be able to almost feel how we were feeling," he says. "Like if somebody is feeling trapped, you can feel that. … Or how the city looked, through photography or videography. … Or see their dancing and see the emotion they put into the movement …"
The CCC fund has aspirations above merely documenting experiences, says John Michael Schert, CCC co-creator and an executive producer with Treefort. "The role of artists has always been to be at the vanguard of 'what is' and 'what's possible.' To some extent, it's the territory between 'here's how we currently do things,' and then to imagine how we could do it."
Schert cites statistics that nearly two-thirds of artists are currently unemployed.
"But their output and process is of huge societal value," he says. "We need to be tapping into their skill set now more than ever."
With racial justice issues rising on the heels of coronavirus, "we have truth-telling responsibilities, to look at systems of power in which we exists."
That includes looking at how arts and artists of color are funded and highlighting voices of communities that aren't well-seen, like minorities, refugees, farmers. "Data points," Schert calls them.
Julia Ballenger, who creates ceramic figures of women of all colors and ages, says that level of diversity is important to showcase right now. "One of the things about this grant is it's allowing so many more voices to have the floor," she says.
"Rather than just giving (a grant) to one person, there are all these different artists with these different life experiences — their experience of this is totally unique to everyone else," Ballenger says. "The more voices, the better."
That's exactly it, Schert says. "The reason that we want to archive and enumerate and highlight the work of these artists is not just for historical reasons, but also to broadcast to the public: Look at these ways of imagining how we might live together — and choose."
And then ask: "How do we amplify and use the collective projects coming from the CCC creatives, so they become a moment of social learning and growth? That's the next step."
The core organizations — Treefort, Morrison Center, Boise Arts & History — are joined by Surel's Place, an artist residency in Garden City. Their intention is to have a showcase this fall, but the group has not yet determined when or how because of coronavirus restrictions. However, the artists themselves have been tasked with imagining how it would happen. Some ideas include premiering art on social media as it's finished, creating installations along the Boise Greenbelt, posting poetry on city buses, hosting an art tour like a garden tour.
Watch the COVID Cultural Commissioning Fund website for details.
From the Caribbean, musician Irvin Brown ended up in Idaho to study at College of Idaho, where he was exposed to migrant issues in his sociology and anthropology classes.
He and his college roommate started a business, Trópico 208, promoting Black, Latino and Caribbean artists in the Treasure Valley, and were all ready for a splash at Treefort. But when the musical showcase was postponed, Brown turned Trópico 208's energy into a CCC Fund grant (before he heads to graduate school in England in the fall).
With a sensitivity to communities that have been affected most harshly by coronavirus, both in terms of infection rates and also economics, Brown is producing an album of original songs in collaboration with local artists of color. "To send a message that, hey … every time things like this happen — a pandemic or economic or natural disaster — these communities get affected the most."
He's concerned that, when the economy begins to return, there will have been no lessons learned.
"Because we really can't," he says. "If we go back to normal, then we're just going to go back to doing the same things that destroyed these communities and stopped them from growing and being able to weather these storms."
His genre will be hip hop because, he says, it's a good language for people who don't feel like they're being heard. "Hip hop … allows people who feel small to be larger than life," he says.
"If you are in a minority situation, you want to seem larger than you really are and seem like a big deal. What hip hop allows you to be is a big deal … and express what, in everyday life, you might not be able to."
The eight-song album, plus three singles, each with original artwork covers — another collaboration — will be available on social media and his website.
Mykelle Walton is an aerial circus performer. Think acrobatics and Cirque du Soleil, or combining dance with your retro gym class rope, 30 feet high. Think flexibility and grace in the air, and which are feats of astonishing strength — although she makes it look effortless.
Walton is using her grant money to purchase a custom-designed rope from a premier rope-maker in the United Kingdom. Her intention is to create a four- to seven-minute piece about our human need to have purpose in our work — which is something that has been disrupted during the pandemic, including her own.
She's a gig performer, an entertainer, and — as she's had time to reflect during her unemployment — she's noticed: Normally, when people are off work, she's on work, and vice-versa. "It's made me think a lot about — what is work and why do we constrain it to those (9-to-5) hours of the day? Do we like doing that?"
Her idea for a performance begins very conceptually.
"I've been thinking … since we can just shut down the entire economy and everything seems to be, 'survivable' — what is really the purpose of work in humans' lives? Do we actually need to engage with work on a level that just props the economy up? Or can we think higher and engage with work as a system to make our human lives better?"
She pauses to consider. "Perhaps … I can tell that in a story … through my body … on a rope. Perhaps."
She acknowledges it's a big challenge. "I don't know if I'm going to figure any of this out. But I would like to do an act that raises these questions somehow. That my own physical work on the rope (creates) a metaphorical work in your mind."
Check with the CCC Fund website to track live performances, such as Walton's.
Wendy Blickenstaff graduated from Boise State in December 2018. She spent the last year building a beautiful studio and installing a huge printing press in preparation for her debut as a printmaker this spring. Instead, there was coronavirus.
"Being stuck in my home, having no place to show my art, I just felt really useless," Blickenstaff said. Her neighbors are doctors and nurses, but she couldn't even babysit their kids during the stay-at-home order.
"But I am able to create images. That's the tool I can use."
She made linoleum block prints on fabric with waterproof ink and hung them on utility poles around her North End neighborhood, sometimes targeting poles by Interfaith Sanctuary and City Light Home for Women.
"I (was not) an essential worker. But I was able to something … for the greater good."
She carved virtual hugs, images of hunkering down, what it was like to go stir-crazy. She made images in a tribute to everyday heroes and one titled "We can do this." She pulled vividly colored prints about nurture and love, reconnecting, isolation.
"I was feeling so bad about people being quarantined and stuck inside. Maybe lonely. Maybe scared — because I certainly was scared the first couple of weeks. And my heart was just aching."
She did a print a week before restrictions were loosened. Now she's continuing the series, looking a little deeper into the more difficult parts of being in quarantine; she's made almost a dozen more prints that combine coronavirus with social justice.
"This time that we're going through is so unprecedented," she says. "It needs to be documented. …
"Because of this quarantine, people will develop new habits, maybe create phobias. I don't know, but having artwork that reflects people's emotions during this time, I think, will be helpful to be able to unpack what's happened to us. …
"I want people to remember this; if they're having psychological issues later that could stem from this, they might be able to look at the images and go, oh. Wow. Yeah."
Blickenstaff bought a portable press with her grant money. "It's a COVID-y thing," she says. "You can't come into the studio. But I can bring the studio out to people."
Julia Ballenger is a ceramicist. Last fall, when a pandemic was merely hypothetical, Ballenger made a little sculpture, just for herself. It was two women, two friends, one leaning her head onto the other's shoulder.
The piece was about women's friendships and became the seed for Ballenger's CCC proposal: How do we remain close and intimate when we can't be close physically?
She expanded on the idea, and made eight individual women from the bust up and set them in a circle. "I wanted to show the power of communing together and being together," she said. "We're one small voice; together, it's far more powerful. So that's when the piece starting coming together."
But as coronavirus affected our ability to be in proximity, Ballenger looked anew at the circle of women. "What if I put them, oh, six inches apart — are they still together?"
She began playing with the space between the women, creating prototypes for the finished work that she hopes will be a "sense memory" — recalling the touch that is lacking in our coronavirus-separated lives.
"Just for a minute, if you can remember what that feels like, that (closeness) is still there — and it will exist for us in the future," she says. "Just maybe not right now."
Ballenger studied art made by German nuns around the time of the plague in the 14th century, and their art reveals much about historical moments. "I feel comforted (by their art), because these people survived so much."
And the artwork being made now — by even, say, artists in Boise, Idaho — will be part of our historical understanding of the pandemic.
"Textbooks can only say so much. But art is something that we look at when we're trying to understand the human side of the experience of living through this," she says. "Art is a better voice for the human experience than statistics."
About three weeks into the pandemic, during the stay-at-home order, Jeanna Wigger started sewing masks. She was among the countless numbers across the Treasure Valley, across Idaho, the nation and even the world, who sewed masks for family, friends and strangers.
Wigger has creative business called Sage Woolens, in which she makes bags and textile art solely out of repurposed wool garments. "As I was making masks, I was watching my scraps pile up and pile up and pile up," she says — repurposing was on her mind.
Quilts historically have been made from scraps, and she imagined a quilt that honored the sense of purpose of mask making. "There's a collective, uplifting feeling that we're doing this together."
Quilts have also reflected and recorded history — from family history to world events: Think of the AIDS quilts, or peace quilts, or quilts stitched with the names of people in World War II camps.
"A lot of those different movements throughout history have been with people coming together physically, (like in) sewing bees," she says. "The COVID pandemic is different in that way, because we can't physically gather. …
"(But) people have stepped up, and there's this real sense of 'together we can do this.' We're sewing alone — but together."
Wigger reached out to mask sewing groups on social media and by word of mouth, soliciting either their scraps or a 9 1/2-inch by 9 1/2—inch quilt block made from their scraps, that she is assembling into a huge 100-block quilt. She intends for it to displayed in public spaces with other CCC Fund works.
"One of my hopes, or aspirations, for the finished quilt project is that … maybe someone's going to see a scrap in a block and see the same fabric that their mask is made out of," she says. "That would just really bring everything full circle for me."
To contribute a block or scraps, email Wigger for details: email@example.com.
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