MFA student Mary Gring's thesis project, “Disintegration/The Cure,” is a multimedia installation that looks at self-care through creative methods. "Who knew making 2,000 bars of soap would be so relevant?” Credit: courtesy mary gring

It’s been more than a week since the shelter-in-place order was given. But even before the order was given, art galleries and museums had been connecting virtually with viewers for upwards of two weeks. Most went on hiatus and began canceling events in order to protect those tempted to gather in large crowds (and as we have learned, Chicagoans are very tempted). This unfortunately includes a large number of students who were planning to present their thesis work in student exhibitions. Graduating during a pandemic probably wasn’t in their adult-life plan, and their employment, living situations, and well-being are at risk as they propel themselves into the new reality that is COVID living.

Museums like the Art Institute of Chicago are offering interactive features for objects in the museum like this West African Headdress for dance and this carousel horse. People are getting creative figuring out how to stay connected and, ultimately, how to entertain and serve the isolated country. Gallery Victor Armendariz has introduced a virtual program to bring artists to your inbox.

Benjamin Cook, a painter based in Covington, Kentucky, started @SocialDistanceGallery around three weeks ago as a response to the BFA and MFA thesis exhibitions being canceled around the globe. Cook is an adjunct professor at the Art Academy of Cincinnati where all shows have been subsequently canceled. Other schools have either completely canceled or rescheduled, or have limited their access. Artists are depleted, having spent a year—or years—working towards a show that won’t come into fruition.

How does an online-only gallery like Cook’s work? With more than 16,000 followers, professors submit the work for their students via a website in the bio of the gallery’s Instagram account. Students can also decide to submit on behalf of their class. “Because I [have] such a high level of response, I am asking that schools submit their entire shows as a group rather than each student reaching out independently,” Cook says.

Social Distance Gallery is a one-person project. “There has been a steady stream of submissions,” says Cook, “but I have it under control now.” It’s difficult for some artists to even know if their show will go up or not. “Some student’s shows are not scheduled for a few weeks. I expect things to pick up soon. There have been a number of people reach out and offer help if things get overwhelming.” And given Chicago’s shelter-in-place order, Cook may have his hands full soon.

Mary Gring, originally from South Bend, Indiana, is currently pursuing an interdisciplinary art and media MFA from Columbia College Chicago where her oeuvre in performance, video, projection, and sculpture focuses on health, illness, and self-care. She and her cohort of six other artists at Columbia make a wide range of work: paper, books, digital illustrations, design, performance, and rituals. They all entered graduate school together in September 2017. For now, the group is slated to still graduate in May. Their thesis exhibition was scheduled to be exhibited at Columbia College’s Glass Curtain Gallery in the last week of April. “Everything is uncertain right now, and I think my cohort is in disbelief; this is certainly not how we pictured our last semester of graduate school, an already stressful and draining few years,” Gring says. The cohort feels even more anxious about post-graduate plans as the pandemic has contributed to closures, layoffs, and artists feeling lost. But Gring says that she understands the circumstances. “Though these delays and cancellations are inconvenient and disappointing, the only thing we can and should do is prioritize the health and safety of ourselves and our neighbors. If that means our thesis show and graduation are postponed or canceled, so be it.”

After a near-fatal car accident in 2016 left Gring in a wheelchair for four months—and has subsequently played a major role in her life contributing to chronic pain and fatigue—her creative practice reflects her experience with mental illness and her disability. Gring’s thesis project, “Disintegration/The Cure,” is a multimedia installation that looks at self-care through creative methods. She filmed herself taking a shower through an endoscopic camera, which she encased within a bar of soap, in order to explore her compulsive behaviors. She utilized dye, mica, and glitter to create 2,000 bars of soap, which are displayed with the film and a scented sculptural installation. Gring says the piece “invites viewers to confront the intimate, honest realities of illness, coping, and physicality in a way that could seemingly swallow them whole. Who knew making 2,000 bars of soap would be so relevant?”

Gring’s professors and administrators at Columbia have been reaching out to students, reassuring them, and encouraging them in positive ways—an imperative part of society right now. Courses are still being discussed to be moved online but much of the planning has been difficult, especially in a school for art students, who take studio-based courses. Gring’s professors are learning how to cope, too. They are reaching out to artists all over the country through Facebook (specifically a group called Online Art & Design Studio Instruction in the Age of “Social Distancing”) and are learning how to work remotely.

Yvonne Martinez, a fiber and material studies student, was slated to graduate from SAIC with her MFA this spring. Martinez owns most of her equipment and has been able to work remotely in her makeshift studio in her room in Logan Square. Martinez has been taking her work to Twitch, where she is livestreaming herself with her physical fiber materials. For Martinez’s original idea for the MFA thesis show, she was going to present large knitted pieces with an accompanying performance during the opening. “I use a hacked knitting machine to generate large pieces of fabric with screenshots and images from my computer desktop on them,” she says. In self-isolation, she says, “I’m developing a web application where the audience of the performance would be able to submit text/imagery in real-time to me and watch as I print the images out using my knitting machine. I would be streaming the whole thing on Twitch at the same time, so my online audience could participate as well.” Martinez’s interests lie in blending the digital experience with the physical world, which makes her practice in isolation continue with ease. “While most of this can and does exist online, the audience participation and translation into the physical world is important, and I don’t want that to be missing from my thesis show.”

Knitted piece featuring the above screenshot
Knitted piece featuring the above screenshotCredit: courtesy yvonne martinez

For Martinez, it’s difficult to keep up with the onslaught of news from the school’s administration and students. Every day that passes may mark a new decision for the school. “I hope the conversation remains open and [as] compassionate as it has been. There’s a feeling of solidarity which I am enjoying. I set up a Slack channel for the grad students to hang out and talk (about non-school related stuff) [sic] which has been nice too.”

Martinez’s program isn’t solely focused on the precariousness of their thesis show, however. Instead, the issue lies in critique week, where in-person studio visits with faculty are conducted to evaluate the students’ progress. “Most communication is done through emails, although I’ve spoken on the phone/video chatted with some advisors/mentors and the professor that I am a TA for.”

Universities and colleges have been drastically disrupted, with thousands of students forced to evacuate campuses, and are at a loss for how to continue classes. Graduation, future plans, and housing have all become serious concerns alongside safety, health, and well-being.

Gring says her mental illness and physical disability already make life difficult and that the pandemic has affected her anxiety and pain. Nevertheless, she’s hopeful as she continues to make work at home during self-isolation. “If school has taught me anything, it’s that making art will never be more important than my own well-being. And that’s okay.”

“Everyone is going through a similar thing,” Cook says. ”Self-isolation has been strange. The lack of information and clear messaging has made things a bit scary. We are in the early stages of this and the long-term effects are yet to be seen. I am just taking things one day at a time. I am trying to stay informed, working on this project, and rewriting my syllabi to reflect a new, remote teaching schedule.” On the positive side, Cook’s family is healthy and he’s been able to spend more time with his partner and two dogs.

“If you feel like you can’t make work, it’s okay to rest,” advises Martinez. “Take a bath, do some yoga, go for a walk, call a friend/family member, eat some ice cream. We should take time to do things that make us feel good and not feel guilty about it.”

Right now many MFA and BFA students have their hands tied. They aren’t sure whether they will graduate or if their thesis shows will go on as planned. Like the rest of the world, it’s a game of wait and see. All plans will be uncertain for the foreseeable future, which means accounts like Social Distance Gallery will become more prevalent as artists continue to create in the comfort of their homes and look for virtual outlets. v