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Dressing to protect oneself and others during the COVID-19 pandemic means making a mask part of the daily uniform, whether going to work, school, or simply running errands. Creating customized masks in colorful fabrics, often with multiple layers and a filter pocket, has become an overnight industry.

Yet many still prefer the disposable, surgical-style pleated face masks in a shade of blue that instantly evokes a hospital's sterile environment. Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist who is world-renowned both for his art and his dissident stance against the Chinese government, saw the creative potential in those surgical-style masks; he block printed some of his most famous works in miniature on the masks and sold them to raise money for emergency COVID-19 relief. The project, produced in collaboration with a curator at the Guggenheim Museum and printed by hand at his studio in Berlin, brought in more than $1.4 million by July.

Norfolk Academy art teacher Betsy DiJulio created a project inspired by Ai Weiwei's work for her Studio Art 2 and 3 students.

Said DiJulio, “When Knox Garvin mentioned Ai Weiwei's mask project I knew instantly that our students needed to make their own versions as we eased back into face-to-face instruction.  Since the students were familiar with Ai Weiwei from last year, I created and shared a short Powerpoint overview, including a couple of videos, and then asked students to create designs that symbolize a value they hold dear, especially if that value was thrown into higher relief because of the pandemic."

The young artists, all of whom are juniors and seniors, sketched designs on paper then carved those designs into blocks made of Soft-Kut. The students rolled ink on the blocks and experimented with approaches to transferring the design to the mask. Some pressed the block onto the mask, while other tried pressing the mask onto the block; the technique mattered, particularly given the challenge of dealing with the pleats in the fabric. Each student created four masks, currently displayed on boards in the art room.

Jasmine LeClair '22 created an image of the Chinese demon, Gao Huang Gui, a ghostly creature that can invade a person's body--specifically settling into the area between the heart and diaphragm--and cause depression and physical illness. Jasmine said that her choice was a response to the pandemic and an expression of her Chinese heritage and her broader interest in Asian art.

Phoebe Montagna '21 used her mask for artwork that gave voice to her love of serving as an acolyte at Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Norfolk. It features the Book of Common Prayer, and the bread and wine and holy sacraments. As an acolyte, she assists the priest during Communion; the last time she served was on February 23rd--she has the day marked on her calendar--which was shortly before the church suspended in-person services for the pandemic.

The church recently reopened, and she was looking forward to getting confirmed. “That's another reason I did this design," she said.


Please learn more about the visual arts offerings at Norfolk Academy.

 

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