What have people done to stay calm and sane during the pandemic? Clean cupboards, bake bread, learn a new language?
Karen Kienzle, director of the Palo Alto Art Center, was thinking about this over a year ago and thought it might be a good theme for a show. She recruited Ann Trinca, an independent curator, to organize a group exhibition which is now on display. “Creative Attention: Art and Community Restoration” features the multimedia work of 18 artists and addresses, according to the press release, “practices of repair, healing, restoration, belonging, sustainability and resilience.” The show is on view until May 21.
Trinca explained that she was contacted in October 2020 with the idea of an exhibition that would respond to current political events and discord, as well as the impact of the pandemic.
“We wanted to incorporate programs, partnerships and facilities that would help people deal with distress and suffering,” she said. “We also wanted to celebrate the positive effects of looking at art, getting to know others, and opening your heart.”
Because she believes “every artist is a healer”, it was no small feat to narrow the scope down to just 18 artists. “We looked for artists who had already connected with their communities or produced new work in response to the pandemic,” she said.
Kienzle noted that several of the artists have previously shown work at the center, such as Kenyatta AC Hinkle, or had residencies there.
One would expect a show with such serious themes to be heavy. This is not the case here, both because there is a panoply of media (from video to ceramics) but also because each artist was free to express his own vision of the subject.
Most of the works are contemporary, often created within the last year, but the exhibition opens with four bright, bold and hopeful prints by Corita Kent, dated to the early 1970s. Kent, a former nun, has enjoyed a second career as an artist (most often associated with the pop movement) in Los Angeles. The serigraphs here are typical of his playful abstractions, usually involving calligraphic strokes in primary colors, each with thoughtful quotes from literary notables like DH Lawrence written below. They may not be current, but they are still relevant and thought provoking.
Jeremiah Jenkins is represented by an eye-catching display of ceramic bowls and plates, each a simple off-white shape, which has been embellished with shards of blue and white pottery. These broken pieces are affixed to be decorative, as well as a great example of recycling. According to the label’s statement, the artist is interested in “how things are made and how they break.”
Responding to the need for healing during a time of illness is the work of Tucker Nichols. His “Flowers for the Sick” couldn’t be more artisanal – small childish renderings (done in oil on canvas) of flowers that are displayed with a message in pencil on the wall below. The messages deal with prosaic occurrences, such as “Flowers to cure hiccups”, as well as more profound ones, “Flowers for the last thing my dad said”. The artist began posting the flower designs on her website and social media to “use the everyday language of flowers to soothe everyday suffering with everyday kindness.” Just looking at them will bring a smile.
On a darker note, Angela Hennessy created a large-scale wall hanging dedicated to her African American ancestors. Crafted from braided, woven and crocheted synthetic hair, the piece commands attention, both for its bold black and white contrast, but also for the laborious nature of its construction. In her etiquette statement, Hennessy, who is an associate professor at the California College of the Arts, said her work “appeals to African and European practices of grief and bereavement, as well as the importance of hair in life. ‘racial identity and the politics of beauty’.
Lynn Beldner, a fabric and fiber artist, has three pieces in the exhibit, including “Emergency Blankets.” This piece consists of nine small squares of flannel fabric in a range of colors and patterns that have been edged in matching satin colors and hung on the wall. Maybe it’s the colors or the softness of the fabrics, but this piece felt like a comforting hug. The label explains that Beldner created these pieces right after 9/11, “but they still feel emotionally and conceptually necessary.” And, she wisely notes, “emergencies seem to be our new normal.”
A lighter approach was taken by San Francisco artist Leah Rosenberg with her video piece, “At a Loss for Words”. As the title suggests, the piece consists of 10 one-minute videos created to look like silent films – with a ragtime soundtrack. In these charming black-and-white vignettes, the artist turns the camera on herself as she brews tea, sorts through a stack of books, plays the guitar, and ices a cake (to name just a few tasks), all from the comfort of her white pajamas. It’s a fun and smart take on how we’ve all learned to make the most of isolation by making even simple tasks meaningful and fun.
When asked why this exhibition is particularly timely, given the current pandemic situation, Trinca replied, “I see artists as second responders, meeting our emotional needs and offering hope. Art can help us relax and slow down and it helps us connect to other people My hope for this exhibition is that visitors will be deeply touched and have the chance to process complicated emotions.
Many free public events are offered in conjunction with the exhibition, including a discussion with two of the participating artists, Christine Wong Yap and Marcel Pardo Ariza (March 4, 5 p.m., via Zoom) and a Community Day celebration on March 10 April that offer hands-on arts activities.
The center is also sponsoring weekly virtual meditation sessions with stress management consultant Julie Forbes, from Thursday at noon through June 30.
A virtual exploration of the pieces featured in “Creative Attention” is available on the exhibition’s website, which also offers artist profiles and audio descriptions of some of the works.
For more information on the show and related events, visit cityofpaloalto.org.