Making Masks, Artists Respond to the Social Imperative
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Making Masks, Artists Respond to the Social Imperative

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Making Masks, Artists Respond to the Social Imperative

Museums and cultural institutions are currently shuttered during the global pandemic and subsequent stay at home orders. Artist’s reliance upon these spaces is now upended, and makers have to fend for themselves. As with most artists, they have an eye towards the public response. The turn to creating masks is their answer to the social imperative of a wartime society in desperate need of PPE (personal protective equipment) for its citizens.

Informality has spoken to several artists around the country to ask how they’ve transformed their spaces to accommodate mask making. This idea is not new; Westword in Denver, Colorado, recently reported a great story on how artists there are making masks for the city’s homeless population.

We reached out to many artists and makers. Due to the overwhelming need for masks and other PPE, many could not respond. These fantastic creators include The Sewing Labs, Rightfully Sewn, Chloe Schempf, Debra Smith and  many others participating in this enormous effort

Courtesy Jessica Kincaid

Kansas City artist Jessica Kincaid uses two layers of 100% lightweight cotton with one layer of lightweight fusible interfacing in between. After ironing each mask for the last time, Kincaid immediately puts it in a plastic bag. She is following examples from KC Helps Make Masks. It is the local grass-roots organization that is doing incredible things by collecting volunteer-made masks and distributing them to hospitals and facilities in most dire need. 

They also provide instructions for washing your cloth in hot water, disinfecting your tools and work area so it’s sterile, and washing your hands every hour, as well as keeping your work area separated from all other household members within a 6-foot radius. “Also, we wear masks as we sew. I try hard to follow these best practices.” 

The standards of PPE have made itself well-known to the art community over the past few weeks and  this knowledge is stitched into their making. Kincaid opted to make the “Tier 2” design mask, as opposed to “Tier 1” or rounded masks made from special vinyl material from the hospital that fit more firmly over the bridge of the nose. 

Tier 1 masks cover n95 masks to extend the lives of those PPE. Tier 2 is the style thatis “disposable,” which people can slip on when they enter a waiting room or need a quick, temporary cover.

Kincaid tells Informality the most challenging aspect of all this is keeping up with the changing rules. “The CDC has contradicted the WHO, and the president has been inconsistent on… well never mind that.  There have been changes in who the masks are for: only medical personnel? Essential employees? Everyone so that the droplets do not get spread at all?

“Changes in how to make the masks: elastic was ok at first, now fabric ties are preferred. What style of mask is in more demand? Tier 1, then Tier 2, but really both. It is my understanding that any mask will be worn and is better than no shield at all. I’m not a medical professional, and this is not my turf. I am following the advice of people in the art community who have researched the best practices and designs.”

Creating the masks has pushed Kincaid to make esthetic decisions again after a lull in her own studio practice. Like millions of Americans, Kincaid was furloughed from her job and, as she  says, “we’re all in limbo as to when the crisis will subside, but having extra time allows me to make more creative work. 

“I would like to get back into making art, but I don’t know where I will store it. I sure won’t have anything framed. Apparel and functional items could be the solution.”

Courtesy Michelle Hartney

Michelle Hartney is a Chicago based artist whose work addresses a broad range of topics, from women’s health issues to the concept of heroes, love, and the cosmos. She has been using leftover hand-silkscreened fabric scraps from Mother’s Right, a past project concerning America’s high maternal mortality rate. 

“Along with local midwives and doulas, we sewed 1,200 hospital gowns, one for every woman who died during childbirth in the United States in 2013. This fabric is so unique to me. The fabric print was created using hand drawings. (The illustrations were) of plant derivatives of the drugs used on laboring women for the past 150 years that ultimately killed so many infants and mothers because pregnant women were their guinea pigs.” 

Production (for these masks) is slow because Hartney is now homeschooling her children. “I’ve made about 50 masks so far. I have a lot of experience working with fabric and setting up an assembly line, so I cut everything first, then sew, iron pleats, sew more, put in the ties. I really love sewing, so the process is enjoyable.” Her six and nine-year-olds have helped her a little so far, too. 

Asked where these masks are going, Hartney responds, “a few of my friends reached out to Chicago hospitals and clinics, and they let us know how many they need[ed]. One of our friends’ bikes around to pick up our masks for hands-free pickups, then they’re delivered.”

Hartney finds the project itself to be healing. She was previously an art therapist, so her “art practice is almost always tied to a therapeutic element. Because of the social justice themes in my work…this makes me feel like I’m doing something to help.

“The hard part of this is the psychological toll the pandemic and quarantine has taken;he fear, the anger at our administration for doing nothing, mocking and dismissing the severity, then changing their stance and taking zero accountability.”

Adapting her studio, Hartney says, “my studio is now my kitchen table, which is a big change! I’m a huge introvert and being alone in my studio rejuvenated me every day. I’m a better mom when I get that time to work alone. The irony of this quarantine is I’m never alone! I’m with my family 24/7, and it is lovely to get that quality time, and also challenging to not be able to recharge my introverted self with alone time.”

Many of the materials Hartney uses comes from previous projects. She also has a lot of hospital baby blankets for a future project about infant mortality and is repurposing that fabric too. Hartney also loves that the two materials were also used for healthcare-related issues. And she has had a few friends donate elastic as well, which is hard to come by.

Hartney’s art practice has been intertwined with social justice issues for six years now and doesn’t see the mask-making as a departure from her work. She says, “These masks are works of art…they’re functional…very much so tied to my practice as a feminist artist. (These masks have) strong ties to crafts and functional objects that weren’t labeled as art objects for centuries. My definition of art is very expansive.”

“The people who receive these masks won’t know the meaning behind the fabric, and that’s ok. I hope the masks are kept. Maybe they will end up together again one day, reunited as art objects once this horrible nightmare is over. I hope they keep people safe when they’re being used.”

Like many of us, Hartney started this quarantine “in a state of panic for the first two weeks…When I started to make the masks, I felt more grounded. This is exactly in line with my work, so I feel somewhat useful again, like I’m helping in a small way…I cannot imagine what our brave doctors, nurses, paramedics, and other healthcare workers are going through. They are our heroes. Our lives are in their hands as they’re risking their lives to save us. It’s remarkable. Making masks is the least I can do.”

Courtesy Mark Kirchner

Mark Kirchner teaches photography at the Soka University of America in Aliso Viejo, California.

In 1968 the first skill in life Kirchner learned to sew from his mother. As a boy, he played with G.I.Joes and the clothes they wore into battle were soon shredded. He couldn’t send his action figures into battle naked, so his mom taught him to sew pants from the cotton cloth on an old Singer sewing machine…”

Kirchner studied art at the San Francisco Art Institute. Kirchner tells Informality, “…During the subsequent years, I practiced photography, visual anthropology, and trained as a hand bookbinder. Bookbinding requires different types of sewing, and I have always enjoyed the sewing of paper into books.

“Today, I am my mother’s caregiver as she battles cancer. She is currently in her 8th year of chemotherapy, and having some type of protective mask was important for her to have when going to doctor’s appointments.”

Kirchner’s masks are made from cloth that was given to him over the years. The first group was made using some retro-1950s style cloth. The pattern was found on a Japanese website that also describes how to make masks without sewing. This design requires making different sizes of masks, as they are not a universal one size fits all type. 

Kirchner, like many artists, is learning the adeptness of a new reality. “As for time, I am spending a great amount of time adapting my teaching of traditional chemical photography to multiple online platforms. (Also) keeping two households afloat and providing care for my mom.”

Angelica Sandoval. Image courtesy Susan McSpadden JCCC

Angelica Sandoval is a designer, sculptor, porcelain maven, and facilitator for MakerSpace at the Johnson County Library in Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City.

Sandoval is making non-medical grade cloth masks for front line health care professionals who have no other options for safety.

She, and the rest of the MakerSpace team, which  includes Brian Oertel, Thomas Mailioux and Nick Ward-Bopp are working in shifts to start the 3D printers that print harnesses for face shields. The face shields will also be used for health care workers on the front lines, where protection of any sort remains tightly allocated. 

Sandoval tells Informality, “The first batch of cloth masks are being donated to Johnson County Developmental Services. Our next batch of PPE will go to JOCO (Johnson County, Kansas) EMS.

For Sandoval, she says the most challenging aspect of this endeavor is locating materials! “We are running short on 100% cotton and ¼” elastic. We are trying to find PETG, a type of plastic used for the visor on the face shield.”

With her dining room a makeshift sewing station, the Black & Veatch Makerspace has turned into a 3D printing farm to print face shield harnesses. Johnson County Community College, Maker Lab, and Meredith Nelson have lent their 3D printers to assist us with production.

Sandoval says, “the majority of the fabric was donated by staff members and a local Kansas City company, Twirl. Black & Veatch Makerspace has also purchased the majority of the materials for the face shields.” Making PPE, like cloth masks and face shields, has wholly taken over Sandolval’s studio time. A time like this makes it necessary for skilled persons like Sandoval to utilize her design and fabrication skills to help health care professionals.

Sandoval notes this experience “just proves that artists are important assets to our community. We are makers who are resourceful problem solvers that jump in at times of need.”

Courtesy Kat Nechleba

Denver-based artist, art therapist, and psychotherapist Kat Nechleba is another of this long list of creatives contributing to the effort. Speaking to Informality via email she states, “I was given 10 yards of Phillip de Leon’s Viva Frida printed on cotton a few years back and was waiting for the opportunity to use it. Another person donated a huge box of shoelaces to my studio, which I’m using as the straps on an A.B. mask pattern that I altered. It’s fascinating how the weave of a shoelace stretches to wrap the face, almost like elastic. So far I’ve made 60 masks to date, and plan to keep sewing through the pandemic.”

She goes on to say, “a few weeks back, JOANN Fabric was giving away free yards of fabric to volunteer mask-makers to donate to local hospitals. (Jessica Kincaid used their resources).  I did that, but then I thought about my 5-year-old niece in Chicago, who is at risk because she’s spent her entire life in-and-out of ICU for lung issues. Then I thought about my retired aunt, who’s volunteering in hospitals, and then all my family and neighbors. I spiraled and just started stitching up masks and shipping them out to friends and loved ones around the world. Now I’m putting masks in my neighbor’s mailboxes and giving them out to strangers outside of grocery stores.”

The most challenging aspect of all this sewing is back pain, but making a face mask is easy and so crucial for any artist or crafter to do. Even with a shortage of materials, “we can all make something out of what we have.” Neblecha’s only cost has been shipping.

 “In the biggest twist of irony, before any of this happened,  I was creating a body of work that questioned how we were presently living in a dystopian future threatened by an invisible psychological war. It seemed appropriate to take a break from that concept once the pandemic actually hit.” 

She concludes, “…for the first time in history, it feels like the entire world is on the same page. Maybe that will encourage growth and appreciation in all of humanity. So many people are stepping up in their own way to help during this crisis, and I think that’s very beautiful. How can positive change not happen?”

Courtesy Kat Nechleba


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