Bad times make for good art.
People always have drawn inspiration from crises, using art to capture the spirit of the times, both good and bad.
As well as helping individual artists process the coronavirus pandemic they’re living through today, art brings people together to express their shared fears and pain and to provide hope and vision for the future.
So it was with the AIDS quilt in the late 1980s and early 1990s, created to memorialize the victims of that disease, and more recently, exhibits of quilts created by African-American artists from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, who used that practical medium to express their cultural heritage.
“The quilts had a practical purpose, to keep people warm, but they were so gorgeous, they have been elevated to art,” said Frank Korb, art teacher at Fort Atkinson High School.
After the switch to online schooling in the wake of the coronavirus school closures, Fort Atkinson High School is heading up a cooperative art project that has extended to all district students and even into the surrounding community.
Korb, who teaches mostly 2-D art at the local high school, had been looking around for opportunities for collaborative work and came across a “Quarantine Quilt” project at the Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber in Cedarburg.
This cooperative project involved numerous quilters, each creating a 12-by-12-inch quilt square with a 1-inch seam that would allow the pieces to be stitched together.
As a painter, he submitted a canvas “quilt square” he had decorated using acrylic paint.
Korb thought this type of project would be great for the students at Fort Atkinson High School as they kicked off online classes.
However, in deference to the varied circumstances different families found themselves in, instead of requiring a cloth piece, coordinators of the Fort Atkinson project invited participants to use whatever they had on hand at home: cardboard, paper, newspaper, duct tape ...
“That’s one of the challenges we have with students learning at home,” Korb said. “Some students have more; some have less. We want to make it equitable for all. If you have a grocery bag, use that. If you don’t have crayons or colored pencils, use a ballpoint pen.”
One enterprising artist who turned their work in early even used clippings from the Daily Union, featuring headlines about the looming pandemic.
Rather than a 1-foot square as in the Quarantine Quilt, the coordinators of the Fort Atkinson project have asked people to create a more manageable 8.5" by 8.5" square. Individual artists can choose to orient their art either vertically or horizontally, whatever works for them.
As planning progressed, the Fort Atkinson High School art department, comprised of Korb and Angie Szabo, opened up the COVID-19 quilt project to teachers at the district’s elementary schools and middle school, as well.
With the input from students involved in the school’s chapter of the National Art Honor Society, coordinators then decided to invite members of the community — anyone who lives in, works in or has a tie to the greater Fort Atkinson community — to participate.
“This summer, we hope to pull it all together to share it with the public,” Korb said.
Students are being asked to upload images of their creations as Google slides for an online exhibit. Community members can email in their art to create the digital database.
In addition, all participants are asked to send the “hard copy” of their images to the school, so the physical “quilt squares” eventually can be assembled into one huge quilt for display.
The Hoard Historical Museum has agreed to display the finished project, once it is again safe for people to gather in large groups.
“Merrilee Lee, (curator of the Hoard Historical Museum) actually contacted us about exhibiting the project when the quilt was completed,” Korb said.
In addition, the museum will serve as curator for the entire project, including all of the emails and correspondence that have gone into the COVID-19 quilt.
Last week, coordinators put out the invitation to anyone in the area to submit their own COVID-19 quilt square to memorialize this time in history and document what it has been like in people’s lives during this pandemic.
“When everything falls apart, it’s the arts we go to,” Korb said. “And art is often what remains of a society after it is gone. Look at what’s left of Greek society: their architecture, their art ...”
Korb said that he really is impressed with the pieces the district has received so far.
“There have been some phenomenal submissions,” he said. “People put their whole heart into it.”
Maya Williams, a member of the National Art Honor Society at Fort Atkinson High School, said that it has been “cool” to be involved in this cooperative project, which the society is helping to promote.
The student group has continued to meet online even though members cannot be together in person.
“It has been really cool to see what other students have come up with,” Williams said. “Everybody’s got a different perspective, a different way of reacting to the situation.”
She said she is looking forward to seeing the final quilt on display at the Hoard Historical Museum when it comes together.
“I am really excited for it,” Williams said.
Szabo said she’s extremely thankful for the “amazing” members of the art honor society to taking on the extra work to open this project up to the community.
“We have seen a great response,” the art teacher said.
“Clearly, we aren’t going to be able to put the quilt on display anytime soon, and I don’t know when we’ll be able to construct it either, given the pandemic situation,” Szabo said. “But we are really thankful to the Hoard Museum for offering a venue when we finally can reveal this to the public.”
Szabo, who teaches mainly 3-D art at Fort Atkinson High School, said that the art received thus has been incredibly diverse and creative.
Her son, Ben, one of the young students submitting work at the elementary level, centered his piece on the time the “Safer at Home” mandate has given him to indulge in his passion for fishing.
Some students focused their work on their feelings of isolation and struggles with being separated from friends, school and a sense of normalcy during the pandemic.
Some of the adult submissions that have come in so far have taken a more global view, for example highlighting the atmosphere for health-care workers and their appreciation for those putting their lives on the line to improve the lives of others.
Szabo said her own quilt square is a work in progress to which she adds a little every week, reflecting how she’s feeling at that time. It starts with the view from her “home office” and incorporates birds, a universal symbol of hope and freedom, as well as metal leaves cut out of soda cans.
“One thing I am really appreciating about this time is that it has forced a lot of us to slow down the pace of our lives,” Szabo said. “For me, that means I’ve really been able to experience the passage of the seasons in a way that I haven’t for many years.”
To join in the project, people may email photographs of their work to email@example.com and send the physical copies of their work to Collaborative SDFA Art, 717 Shiloh Ct., Burlington, WI 53105.
“We need both digital and physical versions of the art because we’re going to exhibit it both ways,” Szabo said.
If people don’t have access to technology, however, they can mail their work in with a note so coordinators can upload an image.
“We are just really excited to be able to do something to illustrate the cohesive community experience,” Szabo said.