Kubra Al Hilali, Peace, Joy, and Happiness

The COVID crisis has created a world in which outdoor public art has an important role. It’s visible to everyone, all the time, without subjecting viewers to gallery crowds or indoor air. It has a unique way of bringing a community together, providing common experience even when people are isolated. That’s what has happened with several of the Creative Fusion program’s projects as the pandemic made large gatherings too risky.

MetroWest’s Art at a Distance exhibit is a great example. Eleven artists with connections to the Clark-Fulton and Stockyards neighborhoods were chosen to exhibit at Meyer Pool, creating works in response to their experience of the COVID crisis. All the commissioned works were made on 24”-square panels, exhibited on two sides of Meyer Avenue: on one side at the pool; on the other, along the fence at Lincoln West High School.

It would be a significant mistake to describe this as a “drive by” exhibit. The works cannot be appreciated without stopping to give each some time. Many of the works are illustrative, with some representing aspects of the pandemic literally and others through symbolism, but some of the works are more abstract representations of ideas, like isolation and connection.

Among the illustrative, Emily Splain’s COVID Houses features the four houses she visits while in isolation: her own house, her mother’s house, a friend’s house, and a neighbor’s house. On the one hand, it is a small world. On the other, they represent comfort. Splain accentuates the positive, in her ability to work from home and be with people she loves, and finds that she has become productive despite—or perhaps because of—the restrictions.

Devon Iris’s untitled rendering of a person in a gas mask fully covering the head responds to the isolation differently, finding inspiration in imagination. While the gas mask blocks out the diseased air, flowers bloom from all its openings, as if the artist continues to push beauty out into the world.

Hector Castellanos Lara. COVIDANCE

Two of the artists focused on the way careless human response continues doing damage to the planet: Hector Castellanos-Lara ‘s COVIDANCE shows a skeletal figure in a red T shirt and jeans, with a gas mask, dancing wildly, thrashing in the air as disposable face masks float around him. In the last nine months, disposable masks have become a new item that commonly litters parking lots and lawns. Castellanos-Lara says he was worried even in the beginning of the pandemic that the masks would be “another problem, just like plastic bags and disposable gloves.” He adds that the skeleton dancer in the painting has “already gone to the other world” because this one has “too much contamination.”

Kevin Fernandez Colon’s work, Nature’s Imbalance, highlights the same problem. His photorealistic oil painting portrays a fox who has stopped, looking down at a disposable mask draped over a log. The fox seems confused by the mask. It doesn’t belong; he doesn’t know what it is. “I created this piece to reflect the impact that COVID-19 has had on nature, and to remind us that we need to respect our wildlife,” Colon says.

In her work, Lost in Space, Alicia Vasquez uses figurative painting symbolically. It’s a portrait of a face: half a human woman, half a lion. It retains symmetry in the features. A star crosses both foreheads. In her statement, she says the split personas show a being that wants to be brave and silent, but is still experiencing deep grief. She says the star in the middle represents the positive desire to come together and create unity. “All of these feelings together make a person feel lost in a world that they question if they even belong in,” she says.

Kubra Al Hilali’s work—Peace, Joy, and Happiness—is predominantly abstract, including Arabic and Roman lettering, fragments of sheet music, floral imagery with smears of paint, and a fish. The fish tail and a couple of added, circular panels break out of the perimeter of the piece, and break free of the surface of the panel. It’s a mélange of emotion and allusion, showing a mix of culture and concerns, ultimately resolving in balance and peaceful, life-affirming shades of green.

Also contributing to the exhibit were Kristen Newell, whose work Convalescence shows a woman’s figure like a statue, the blue-green color of oxidized copper, standing by the sea shore with rainbows radiating from her imagination; Gilberto Rivera Jr., who in The Miracle alludes to the president’s anticipation that the coronavirus would just disappear; Jen Craun, whose Lines of Connection—the most abstract work in the exhibit—uses intersecting gold lines to portray connection with family and friends; Elaine Hullihen, whose fabric collage Flow shows a current of water, flowing around shapes symbolic of self, family, community, and society; and Mark Yasenchak, whose mosaic piece Stone Heart began as a shield—perhaps symbolic of his turn to art for protection against stress brought on by the COVID risk—which evolved as he worked into a heart, which he says is “a shield of a different kind.”

Art at a Distance is on view September 19–November 21 on Meyer Avenue at West 30th Street.


In a bizarre twist, about halfway through the exhibit’s run, four of the original works of art (by Alicia Vasquez, Mark Yasenchak, Hector Castellanos-Lara, and Kevin Fernandez Colon) were stolen. MetroWest promptly replaced the stolen panels with prints of the same works, maintaining the complete appearance of the exhibit.

Art theft paradoxically underscores the value of the art and devalues it. On the one hand, someone wanted it badly enough to commit a crime to get it. On the other, stolen art—especially works that have been exhibited publicly, and therefore are known—can’t be shown publicly by the thief and can’t get anywhere near their full value in any attempted sale.

Artists’ responses were varied. Kevin Fernandez Colon was struck by the loss of labor: he says he invested approximately 35 hours in his painting of the fox. Hector Castellanos Lara says he knew the risk, and while it makes him sad, he observes that “whoever did this really loved our art, or maybe doesn’t have any clue and wants to learn and explore [the world of art].” Mark Yasenchak felt similarly: “I really see it as someone starting their collection,” but adds, “The fact that others won’t be able to see [the original] is the part that I don’t like.”

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