A gigantic, personified COVID-19 spike protein snarls down at a masked and gloved nurse. The nurse faces it head on, undeterred, and holding up her middle finger. Another nurse, layered in protective gear, a clear plastic shield, a mask, and hairnet, looks out toward the viewer with desperation in her eyes.
These two paintings are part of the collection, “Surviving COVID Project,” organized by artist Tawnya Gilbert. They are presented at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH) in the exhibition “In These Uncertain Times.”
The MAH previewed artworks from 60 local artists in a virtual walkthrough of the exhibition on Jan. 15. The emotions expressed in the paintings fluctuate from regret and disappointment to hope and joy, all of which reflect the artist’s mindset as they endure the pandemic.
“We wanted to be able to use that opportunity as a space for people to come together once we were able to,” said MAH exhibition and project manager Everett Ó Cillín, “and have this kind of cathartic experience of seeing how everyone has responded individually, and then also collectively to this moment.”
“In These Uncertain Times” showcases that creativity and compassion do not need to end despite most of life being put on hold. While physically separated from loved ones and neighbors, relating to one another is still possible through sharing snippets of life stories.
Since Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency last March, the MAH took notice of the community’s need to connect with one another in a time of seclusion. MAH made an open call to artists in Santa Cruz County for participation and reached out to 10 local creatives in the summer of 2020 as anchor artists for “In These Uncertain Times.”
Anchor artists were sought out by the museum to lay the foundation for the exhibition. Submissions to the exhibit were open to the public. There are seven anchor artists participating in the exhibition:
- Abi Mustapha
- Ann Hazels
- Dana Peters
- Gabriel Medina
- Myra Eastman
- Sarah Bianco
- Tawnya Gilbert
Abi Mustapha, one of the anchor artists who specializes in contemporary realism, found space to think when she had the Solari Gallery all to herself.
Mustapha painted a black and white portrait of a joyful Black woman, her head thrown back in laughter in front of a rich blue violet background. At the bottom of the painting, a collage of flowers grows out from an anatomical heart. Symbolizing spring coming out of the darkness, the portrait conveys a strong sense of joy and empowerment.
“This piece specifically came out of that void of not knowing what was going to happen and not knowing what I needed to create for and I think that a lot of times puts us in this fear mode. And there you can choose fear or you can choose curiosity,” Mustapha said. “I hope it reflects just a beauty that we see in the world that everyone can relate to.”
Another anchor artist Dana Peters created a pastel-toned mural decorated with green and gray scale leaves. A chrysalis, a life stage of a butterfly or moth, is covered with a silky covering awaiting transformation.
Peters resonated with her painting in an unexpected way, as she discovered she was pregnant while creating the mural — a surprise that would positively transform her life.
“‘Enter the Chrysalis’ captures my own pondering and upheaval of COVID-19,” Peters said. “What are the parts of us that are going to make it through this chrysalis stage intact, what is going to be left behind, and what new spread surprises will emerge.”
The video of the virtual walkthrough of “In These Uncertain Times” will be released in the coming weeks. The MAH is planning more virtual events and tours for “In These Uncertain Times.” Visitors will be able to make appointments once Santa Cruz County reduces COVID restrictions. The exhibition will be available and free to the public through May.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article stated that “In These Uncertain Times” was a virtual exhibition. The event on Jan. 15 was a virtual exhibition opening, but the exhibition remains intended for in-person visits. Updated: Jan. 25, 2021.