After the Plague, the Renaissance

by Tina Manzer

People who have art in their life are never bored, even during a cold and lonely pandemic shutdown. This spring, often in isolation, folks all over the world created art, shared art, learned about art and just plain looked upon art with awe.

As billions of us turned to our connected devices for help with work and life, we also found artistic inspiration. Consider the thousands of Getty Museum Challenge participants in March and April who posted photos of their clever and amusing art re-creations. Or the 1,600 6-by-6-inch artworks sold virtually by the Rochester (New York) Contemporary Art Center in June. The annual fundraiser featured 3,400 works in total, created and donated by artists from around the world.

And how about the goal of the Santa Monica-based “Back to the Streets” initiative, which aims to create 1,000 murals by 1,000 artists in 100 cities?

“Street art is the ultimate visual source of social commentary and the pandemic has lit a fire under the feet of muralists around the world,” says The New York Times. While most of us sheltered in place, it seems, artists crept out of their homes to create large, colorful messages of safety and encouragement. Phrases like, “You Can’t Quarantine Love,” “Cancel Plans, Not Humanity” and “If you’re reading this, go home,” joined images of healthcare workers variously depicted as saints, angels and superheroes. Images of everyone from the Mona Lisa to Baby Yoda were portrayed either wearing a face mask or washing their hands.

“Murals add a layer of color and inspiration in these grim times,” Kathleen Rawson told the Times. Disheartened by closed and boarded-up businesses in her district, the chief executive of Downtown Santa Monica hired mural artists through Beautify to create art “that would give people hope.”

Beautify is a technology company for Beautify Earth, a 7-year-old Santa Monica-based mural-making nonprofit. It began when a few local artists volunteered to “beautify” the city’s famously blighted Lincoln Boulevard with murals. By 2019, the nonprofit’s database of artists and owners of building with blank walls “had all the ingredients to create a street art explosion, but no technology,” Paul Shustak told the Times. A software entrepreneur, Paul built the Beautify platform to match up all the players with a few clicks of a keyboard.

Property owners and businesses interested in having a mural painted can upload images of their walls to the site, along with their guidelines and budgets, says the article. Artists can upload their work, browse available walls, and express interest in projects. For the Back to the Streets campaign, corporate sponsors including Zappos, American Express and Lexus are being enlisted to sponsor artworks at $10,000 apiece.

Artists who are hired receive 70 percent of that; 30 percent goes to Beautify to cover logistics, including insurance. The net profit flows back to Beautify the Earth for the nonprofit’s work in schools and underserved communities.

Art materials retailers across the country reported sales increases in mural-making supplies, including aerosols and paint markers, beginning in February. “Some of our best customers are mural artists,” reports Darin Rinne of Wet Paint in St. Paul. “That’s always been the case. But have sales of spray paint increased during the pandemic? Absolutely. We are also ground zero for the recent Black Lives Matter protests.”

In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the violence that followed, hundreds of artists in the Twin Cities created messages of hope, healing and social change on boarded-up buildings. With funds supplied by The Graves Foundation, a local youth-support organization, and free brushes and discounted paint from Wet Pet, they got to work, reported the Minnesota Star-Tribune on June 8. “I think a lot of people have found themselves in this space of ‘What to do?’ and some of us went to art,” said one of the painters.

“Art can be an expression of prayer, a hope for the future, and a way of dealing with systemic racism,” agreed Pastor Peter Wohler, whose faith-based organization sponsors the Fallout Urban Arts Center in Minneapolis.

Born from necessity, fueled by activism

Like murals, “pandemic embroidery,” a phrase coined by artist Emily Sies-Mandel from Wisconsin, is therapeutic for both its creators and viewers. Since the beginning of the shutdown, Emily has been stitching colorful sayings on repurposed flour sacks. “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid or the Lysol,” says one. “Oh, the places you can’t go,” and “I DON’T KNOW” are others.

“Think of it as panic embroidery – or, rather, busywork to keep from panicking,” wrote reporter Molly Guthrey. Her article in the Twin Cities Pioneer Press about Emily and her “Pandemic Embroidery Project” (@sice_and_dice) on Instagram, notes that the 35-year-old art teacher did not embroider pre-virus. She taught herself.

Emily wasn’t the only furloughed worker who wanted to learn. During the COVID spring, the number of participants in online classes rose. Shannon Downey, aka “Badass Cross Stitch,” offered beginner sessions on Zoom for small groups. Listed on her website under the category “Pandemic Craftivism,” were a variety of stitching opportunities, along with a free pandemic embroidery pattern (“Wash your hands and don’t be a racist”).

Allard’s Art, Framing, and Pens in Fresno, California, stocks embroidery supplies. So does Hyatt’s in Buffalo, including kits by Cozyblue. Recently, the store showcased the work of Pamela Koons, founder of Kitschy Cross Stitch, on social media. The Buffalo-based stitcher started embroidering in 2017 and after earning her master’s degree in art history, started selling her designs on Etsy. With sayings like, “Don’t be a dick” and “No justice no peace,” they’re not your grandmother’s handkerchief kits.

Wet Paint in St. Paul sells a range of supplies for embroidery. “We started bringing them in about a year ago,” says Darin Rinne. “The category is by no means a bestseller for us, but like watercolors and other all-absorbing techniques, it keeps people busy and creative.”

Considered “an antique way to decorate fabric” and an “analog skill,” embroidery is experiencing a worldwide resurgence. Some say it began in the fashion industry, where its ability to make any piece of clothing unique and special has been embraced by young designers. “I think embroidery adds value people can understand,” said Rachael Proud, creative director of Raey, a label of the Matchesfashion chain of boutiques in London. “You can see the work and time in the finished item,” she told the Financial Times last October.

Others believe the current embroidery renaissance is part of the revolt against mass consumption and its environmental impact. “Hand embroidery has the power to give a second life to old clothes that would otherwise become waste,” said freelance embroidery artist Nicole Chui. “Such upcycling has made me conscious of using and renewing the tools I have instead of buying new.”

Millennials and Gen Zers, the environment’s newest champions, love the idea of embroidery’s sister skill, “visual mending.” They buy their clothes in thrift stores and patch them up proudly to show the way their garments’ lifespan has been extended.
“Visible mending has been taken up by those who want to protest fast fashion and disposable culture,” wrote The New York Times in March, under the headline, “Now Is When We All Learn to Darn Our Socks Again.” Adding decorative bona fides were articles in both Martha Stewart Magazine and Better Homes & Gardens this year.

Darning, mending and repairing clothes (instead of discarding them) is not a new concept, notes The New York Times. Those who practice it, like software engineer and accomplished home sewer Tom van Diejnen in England, liken it to Make Do and Mend, the English rationing campaign during World War II. Visible mending’s artistic nature takes its cues from sashiko, the Japanese form of decorative reinforced stitching invented in the 17th century. The results are amazing, beautiful, and strong.

“For centuries, people used hand embroidery to decorate, mark and mend their clothes, religious objects, household objects, and even shoes,” writes Tatjana Iljaseviciute on her hand-embroidery blog It’s also an inexpensive and portable hobby, she notes, and its variety of applications are both useful and artistic.

The repetitive movements are also meditative and soothing – just what many of us need right now. “During World War I, recuperating soldiers embroidered to help them heal,” adds Tatjana. “The focus on one action and the flow of needlework calms the mind and reduces stress.”

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