Time and time again, since mid-March when our community began to undergo significant changes, Harrisonburg has shown resilience through inspired and creative collaborations. The ten hours a week I’m putting in as an intern at Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance is nowhere near enough time for me to write about them all. There are simply too many to keep up with: Harrisonburg mobilized fast. Every single week, some fresh idea emerges not from a giant think tank or the board room of a huge, multinational corporation, but from individuals who want to patch the holes this pandemic has ripped open. As the weeks roll on and somber numbers increase, I feel at once guilty for trying to drum up some cheer during a time of global tragedy and intensely called to do just that, as a reminder to myself of the goodness around me.
I sat down recently (at a safe distance) to talk to two of the brilliant and beautiful minds behind a new initiative: Ashley Sauder Miller and Brandy Somers. It was the same day we heard the news about Court Square Theater, which makes their project — #ArtFeltThanks — feel perfectly auspicious. You may have heard that Court Square Theater is closed for at least a year, yet another of many economic casualties. This comes not only as a blow to regular patrons of the theater but also as a sobering reminder that the arts feel every bump and ripple during any budget crisis. Art is fundamental: self expression, resonance, and connection are essential to the human experience, yet art remains an undervalued part of society. #ArtFeltThanks seeks to support artists and health care workers simultaneously, a symbiotic collaboration that merges two essential parts of humanity: care and creation.
Photo courtesy of Larkin Arts. Brandy and Ashley with the rest of the Rockingham Fine Arts Association team
Paul Riner is responsible for starting this merger. With connections at Sentara RMH and in Harrisonburg’s art community, he wondered how the two could support each other. He reached out to Ashley, who started brainstorming ways to support artists not working all that much right now and to express gratitude for our health care professionals whose work has intensified in recent weeks. After all, art as a profession is often, as Ashley put it, “gig work.” Galleries aren’t open yet, and people might be reluctant to spend money on art during economic uncertainty. #ArtfeltThanks couldn’t take the form of an art show or a mural, so Ashley and Brandy thought of a format that would adhere to social distancing guidelines: yard signs.
It’s ingenious, really. Remember when the Welcome Your Neighbors yard signs were first created? That initiative spread faster than Kobe Eats on Instagram. Even if people weren’t crazy about having a sign in their yard, they chose to get anyway because they wanted to be part of that message. It’s cool to drive down a street and see all that orange, green, and blue solidarity, a collective statement of support. The #ArtFeltThanks signs will have a similar effect. Ashley sketched a design of a masked individual that consisted of simple shapes. Brandy, the Photoshop Phenom, worked up a digital template from that design. Then she paired two complementary artists together on the same design that would be made into a yard sign. A few days later, the duo had produced ten sign designs featuring the work of twenty local artists! Proceeds from sales of the signs will be split between the artists and the RMH Foundation Crisis Response Fund. You can order yours for $25 through the Arts Council website. Participating artists include Bahir Badry, Angus Carter, Gayle Hatcher Driver, Morgan Fink, Barb Gautcher, Zach Gesford, Jeff Guinn, Brenda Hounshell, Kathleen Johnston, Tyler Kauffman, Lana Lambert, Elwood Madison Ashley Sauder Miller, Keith Mills, Emily Quesenberry, Karen Robertson, Viktoriya Samoylov, Katie Schmid, Brandy Somers, and Joshua Yurges, and possibly more as the project continues.
As for the design, Ashley and Brandy created an image of a person wearing scrubs and a face mask by combining the artwork of two artists. I’m not the best at describing it, so just take a look at these:
Yard sign featuring work by Tyler Kauffman and Bahir Al Badry. Photo courtesy of ArtFeltThanks
Yard sign featuring work by Emily Quesenberry and Brenda Hounshell. Photo courtesy of ArtFeltThanks
Yard sign featuring work by Morgan Fink and Jeff Guinn. Photo courtesy of ArtFeltThanks
While this project successfully merges the art community and the medical community, so does the grassroots mask-making movement itself, reflecting the rich and diverse social capital of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. Several business owners, like Jeff Guinn and Paul Hansberger have contributed masks to local organizations; so have the artists at Oasis Fine Art and Craft, who are partnering with the Free Clinic for a mask making contest. Mayor Reed is currently heading up the Mask Up Harrisonburg Initiative to supply masks to vulnerable populations. Harrisonburg and Rockingham County residents like Heather Dean and Cara Walton have created hundreds of absolutely beautiful masks, while kids with 3D printers, like Tanner Smith, have contributed vital mask parts like ear savers. Jon Henry General Store has partnered with a local seamstress to keep masks in stock. And y’all, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Photos courtesy of Heather Dean, Cara Walton, Emmy Smith, and Jon Henry General Store
Masks are becoming emblematic of individuals’ identities: I’ve seen Star Wars masks, Harry Potter, floral, plain black… all sorts of patterns and colors. Why? Because people need to feel a personal connection to something they have to wear for twelve hours straight. And art is about connection. Honestly, the mask might become the most loving cultural symbol since the peace sign. It says, “I care about you, whether I know you or not.”
All art does something. It inspires, it reminds, it evokes, it sinks in, it speaks, it listens, it questions. But sometimes art does something else. The #ArtFeltThanks project unites, it comforts, and it provides tangible support. Brandy and Ashley hope to expand the initiative to window decals, and RMH Sentara wants to broadcast the sign imagery on screens and monitors throughout the hospital, extending the artwork’s reach. And sometime in the future, on a to-be-determined very exciting day, maybe we can come together and see all these signs in one space and celebrate our community in person. Until then, let our yards be our gallery.