A once-in-a-lifetime art exhibition featuring work by nearly 80 artists from around the globe is on display at Lansing’s favorite liminal space, the old Sears building in Frandor, as well as four other sites around town.
This year, the Capital City Film Festival has transformed the former appliance and clothing store into an enormous showroom for parties and screenings and a home base for “Creativity in the Time of COVID-19: Art for Equity and Social Justice.” On display are more than 200 works of art sourced from communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic, with the goal of expanding the narratives of the pandemic we might have, including the assumption that it’s over.
The art was submitted through an open call to artists, refugees, members of the disability community, students and many other groups. The works are labeled in a nontraditional manner that curator Nancy DeJoy, an associate professor of writing, rhetoric and American cultures at Michigan State University, calls “dislabeled.” Instead of a typical placard listing the title, author, medium and price, they’re written in the first person and describe the artists’ motivations and struggles. For example, the label for Olivia Azzopardi’s “Let’s Keep Dreaming” series reads, “As I worked on this collection, I thought about the warmth of being reckless with friends and how the pandemic worsened my view on living through heartbreak.” The labels are stark and resonant, adding necessary context for a show this large and an unexpected direct line to the artists’ voices.
Walking into the exhibition, I noticed the walls had been painted, streamers were hanging from the ceiling, folks had drawn on the walls (it’s encouraged!) and multimedia videos were looping in a corner opposite a huge, sprawling scroll draped over purposefully toppled furniture. Artists were encouraged to submit any type of media they desired, from Tiktok videos to coloring books. None of the art is for sale, but attendees can learn about the artists, follow them on social media and purchase their other works online, thanks to QR code links on the labels. DeJoy thinks the artists felt empowered to share a more vulnerable side of themselves knowing they would get their work back.
Despite the heavy subject matter, the art is not all doom and gloom — there are as many artistic representations of the pandemic as there are ways we all coped with it. Some of the art is conceptual, like the poem and ticket “DNR,” by Dolly Sen, who questions madness and mental health. Some of the art is literal — Connie Manna’s painting of shadowy figures on an empty theater stage unexpectedly brought me to tears. Some of the work is resolute — a children’s book about race and the South that Felicia Taylor E. finished during the pandemic helped her connect with her mind, spirit and community. Some of the art offers bittersweet humor, like the painting “Birthday Selfie,” by Dana Ellyn. But all of the work — absolutely all of it — is beautiful.
DeJoy doesn’t see the monumental exhibit making any kind of big pronouncement. The experience is simply too vast to offer a coherent lesson.
“Creativity is a way to respond to life events and to tragedy. We want people to expand the stories they are telling about the pandemic and to be inspired to make something,” she said.
When the pandemic shut down the country in 2020, DeJoy’s MSU classes shifted online “overnight,” she said, snapping her fingers. The new virtual reality was grim, and her students were clearly scared and isolated. DeJoy changed up an assignment by asking students to flex their creativity, and she was blown away by what they came up with. She was surprised by how simply inviting creativity into the situation fostered deeper connections in the online environment.
“I became interested in how my students were using creativity to cope. There is a gap between the self-expression that is possible with creative work and the time it takes you to catch up to what is really going on. As a poet, I understood this,” she said.
She began incorporating more creativity into her classroom as a way to “include conversations about the reality of the pandemic without compromising my commitment to their academic success.”
In collaboration with two other professors, DeJoy was awarded a $3 million grant from the Mellon Foundation, in part to curate and mount this exhibition. The selection committee has managed the unimaginable, stitching together a unique archive of pandemic art that has touched every continent (yes, even Antarctica!) and prioritized equity in the process. The result? A work of global significance is on display — and I cannot stress this enough — in Frandor.
Many community members visited the old Sears building to receive their COVID-19 vaccine. I went to Dwight Rich School of the Arts, but I imagine the experience was similar: I was fearful of the dystopia of it all, but I was overwhelmingly grateful for the volunteers who took such excellent care of us. This exhibition takes similar care, which presents the opportunity to make yet another life-changing memory at Sears and to reflect on this incredible, never-ending moment in history.
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