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September 17, 2020, Ann Arbor, Michigan – The COVID-19 pandemic has famously inspired creativity and resourcefulness in people around the planet as they strive to organize daily life in the face of the coronavirus. But the pandemic has also inspired a group of artists – Adrian Dominican Sisters, Associates, and friends – to create art that marks and reflects on this unique time and to share it with each other monthly through Zoom. The group first gathered in early March.
The artists are also discussing ways in which their art can be displayed for the public after the pandemic, when people are again allowed to assemble.
Members of the group were invited and convened by Sister Barbara Cervenka, OP. “It’s a way not to let these times go by without some way of thinking about them artistically,” Sister Barbara explained. “We’re all doing something to pay attention to this time and…take our ideas to make [our experiences] into something concrete.”
Sister Barbara began by exploring the headlines of each week and creating an artwork that deals with the headline and her personal experience. She adds a drawing symbolizing the events, personal reflection, and poetry that relates to the theme. She also spent the time creating mandalas of flowers. The artwork “gave me a focus for the days,” she said.
Along with Sister Barbara, members of the group are Sisters Mary James “Fran” Hickey, OP, whose water colors deal with confusion and the compression of time; Aneesah McNamee, OP, who creates mandalas; Suzanne Schreiber, OP, a photographer who taught herself during the pandemic to create movies out of video clips and still photos; and Nancyann Turner, OP, who first created a series of collages with poetry and photographs to express her reflections on this time. She is now creating a memory garden for her sister who recently died.
Associate Judi Engel has been working with paintings and poetry. Mame Jackson – co-founder and director with Sister Barbara of Con/Vida, a nonprofit organization which promotes the popular arts in the Americas – is creating a series of bookmarks with imagery and haikus. Mame’s friend, Debra Henning, an art educator, is working on a series of geometrical drawings and drawings of cocoons, reflecting the isolation of this time.
Group members appreciated the challenge to focus their time on art – during a time when so many people have been asked to stay at home for their safety, when so many other outside activities were canceled – and when the planet and the United States seemed to be surrounded by turmoil.
“I think for each of us, it’s the whole process of trying to give meaning to this time,” Judi said. “When you have the pandemic, the concern for racism and ecology all coming together like a perfect storm, it can be overwhelming to people. As an artist, you try to find meaning by finding some kind of image or metaphor that can communicate meaning to other people.”
Sister Barbara said her project has evolved as the virus and other situations evolved. “The first work dealt with what was going on with the virus, and suddenly we had the death of George Floyd and all the reactions to that, what was happening in the larger world,” she said. “All of these are also the story of this time, so I have to find every week a symbol that also reflected that.”
Sister Fran spoke of learning to paint “from the inside” – in contrast to still life and flowers, which depict external objects. Before the pandemic, she created paintings that expressed her own experiences of dealing with a broken wrist or cataract surgery. “A lot of times I let the viewers decide how [the paintings] speak to them, but it’s not a representation. It has layers of meaning.”
During the pandemic, in her series of watercolor paintings on clocks, Sister Fran tried to convey the confusion of time brought out by the pandemic. “The small paintings are representative of most of us.” The initial painting includes a real clock, “and then [throughout the series] the hands begin to go backwards and then they become months – and then they fall off into the air,” she said. “That’s how my experience has been. Without a set schedule, sometimes I have to ask, ‘What day is it?’”
Group members also saw meaning in their shared time together – in the community they formed during their Zoom calls. Sister Aneesah recalled sharing one of her mandalas in which she expressed her frustration at not being able to come into the closed Motherhouse – or her own studio. “I shared it with my mandala and I thought this was very personal, but everyone was so supportive,” she said. “To have that support group has been so wonderful. There was no judgment or critique.”
The artists are also coming away from their ongoing experience with inspiration, lessons from the times, and hopes for the future.
“Both the beauty of the world and the suffering bring inspiration because I want to be out there interacting with the world – contemplation on the spot, so to speak,” Sister Suzanne said. “I think that’s why I became a photographer. Life itself gives me inspiration, especially in the land, trees, plants, and natural environments.” In her movie, she said, she tried to “find the beauty of spring, yet capture the feelings of sadness and care, while at the same time bringing comfort in image, word, and music.”
“I wish and I hope and I pray that everyone could have …some kind of center or inner life – meditation, art, prayer – to give them calm and focus in the midst of all this suffering and worrying,” Sister Nancyann said. “Art can stretch people’s hearts and imaginations so they can see things differently.”
Feature photo: In the Beginning, the first of Sister Fran Hickey’s series of pandemic watercolor paintings, depicts the beginning of the pandemic, when she looked forward to having more time for meditating, praying, studying, and painting.