CLEVELAND, Ohio — It’s tempting to think of the novel coronavirus pandemic as something truly novel because it’s rooted in a viral strain not identified previously in humans.
But there’s nothing new about plagues and pandemics. Humanity has been here before. The cultural record is packed with déjà vu.
In his 1722 book, “A Journal of The Plague Year,’’ Daniel Defoe speaks of the 1665 outbreak of bubonic plague in London in terms that sound eerily like today’s headlines.
The city compiled statistical “Bills of Mortality’’ in ways that anticipate today’s coronavirus curves. The Lord Mayor ordered houses with infected inhabitants to be nailed or padlocked shut — a cruel form of social distancing.
A fifth of London’s population perished. That was a year before the great fire that consumed much of the city.
The 14th century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio relates in his “Decameron’’ how 10 well-to-do young Florentines flee to a country villa during a bubonic plague outbreak known as the Black Death. They’re like the wealthy of today, leaving cities for second homes in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, or the Hamptons on Long Island.
Instead of binge-watching cable TV, Boccaccio’s protagonists entertain each other by telling 100 stories of love, shame and religious hypocrisy.
For art lovers curious about historical responses to plagues and pandemics, the Cleveland Museum of Art has plenty to offer online.
A search of the permanent collection produces dozens of images of death as the great leveler, of saints to whom the afflicted prayed for a cure, and of the plagues visited upon Egypt before the exodus of the Jews.
Heather Lemonedes Brown, the museum’s deputy director and chief curator, takes solace in the artistic testimony from the past because it offers proof that civilization endures and life goes on.
“Knowing that humanity persists is comforting on some level,’’ she said.
The museum, which is still considering how and when it will reopen, isn’t planning a pandemic exhibition, Brown said.
But last week she discussed several works in the collection that deal with themes related to coronavirus, which are included here, along with additional selections.
What follows is a thematic virtual tour of selected artworks which remind us that previous generations have experienced — and withstood — pandemics.
The Dance of Death
The artist Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-98 – 1543), known for stunning portraits in oils of subjects including England’s Henry VIII, designed a series of prints in the mid-1520s dealing with the classic medieval theme, “Dance of Death,’’ inspired by outbreaks of the plague.
Holbein designed 41 variations, of which the Cleveland museum has 38. One depicts Death as a raging peasant attacking a wealthy count who runs for his life, flinging useless armor and weapons to the ground.
The series “reminds us that no one from the top of the heap to a nameless child is safe from death,” Brown said. “Death becomes the great leveler, letting no one escape.’’
In 1850, the German artist Alfred Rethel (1816-1859), created his own variation on the theme in a woodcut depicting “Death as a Strangler,” fiddling in the midst of an 1832 Parisian costume ball during a cholera outbreak that eventually killed 20,000 across the city.
Death appears in the Rethel in the tattered robes of a monk, playing a fiddle made of human bones as partygoers collapse on the dance floor and musicians bolt for the exits.
Parenthetically, it’s easy to see how the Holbein and the Rethel are part of a visual tradition that includes Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1957 film, “The Seventh Seal,’’ relating the tale of a medieval knight who challenges Death to a game of chess during an outbreak of plague as he seeks redemption while still alive.
Variations on Saint Sebastian
The museum holds multiple depictions of Saint Sebastian, a 3rd century Roman soldier who converted to Christianity and was sentenced to death by Emperor Diocletian. When soldiers couldn’t kill Sebastian with arrows, they clubbed him to death.
Miracles associated with Sebastian include the conversion of a Roman prefect who was cured of a plague when he renounced the worship of idols at Sebastian’s insistence.
For that reason, cities and villages across Europe adopted Sebastian as a “plague saint,” to whom they prayed for help during outbreaks.
The museum’s images of Sebastian include a delicate and elegant 1493 drawing by the Italian artist Perugino, exhibited last year in the exhibition “Michelangelo: Mind of the Master.”
“It’s such a sensitive and beautiful little drawing,” Brown said.
In contrast to the Perugino, the 17th-century Spanish artist Jusepe de Ribera used red chalk on paper in 1626-30 to delineate the saint painfully tied by one arm to a tree as he flinches in anticipation of the first arrow he’s about to receive.
Another powerful work associated with Saint Sebastian is a 1484 German monstrance, a gilded silver and rock crystal reliquary believed to contain a sliver of bone from the saint’s body. It’s shaped like a slice of a Gothic cathedral with flying buttresses and a towering cupola holding a crystalline cylinder with its precious contents inside.
St. Catherine of Siena
In addition to Saint Sebastian, Renaissance Italians prayed to St. Catherine of Siena for relief from the plague. The daughter of a wealthy cloth dyer, she had a vision of Christ at age 6, and thereafter dedicated herself to chastity, penance and good works, according to the museum. She became known in Siena for caring for victims of the Black Death.
St. Catherine is the subject of a 1460 altarpiece panel by Sienese artist Giovanni di Paolo, who shows her kneeling as she receives the habit of St. Dominic.
Visons from India, Japan
In 12th century Japan, Buddhists seeking protection from disease addressed prayers to the “Medicine Master Buddha (Yakushi Nyorai).” Seated on a lotus blossom, the Buddha heals all maladies, including ignorance. He holds his right hand upward in a mudra, or gesture, that means “have no fear.”
From 1830 to 1880, street artists gathered around Kalighat Temple in Kolkata, India, to purvey bright, colorful paintings on paper that functioned as political broadsides, gossip sheets or religious tracts. Examples at the museum, which held a memorable Kalighat exhibition in 2011, include a two-sided painting of Sheetala, the smallpox goddess, who has the power to cure or curse devotees.
Out of Egypt
The museum holds numerous depictions of the plagues visited on Egypt prior to the exodus of the Jews to the Promised Land.
Among the most striking is an etching and mezzotint print by British artist J.M.W. Turner, modeled after his 1800 painting “The Fifth Plague of Egypt,’’ now owned by the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Both the etching and the painting are mistitled. Turner’s image, which shows storm clouds and lightning shrouding Egyptian pyramids, actually depicts the Seventh Plague, caused when Moses stretched his arms toward the heavens causing fire, thunder and hail to descend on the pharaoh and his minions.
Cleveland artist Scott Miller, who died in 2008 at age 52, was known for a flowing style inspired by cartoons and graffiti. “Untitled,’’ painted in 1986, depicts a male figure with his arms folded protectively across his chest as he hovers amid overflowing viscera. The museum says the painting refers to Miller’s “identity as a gay man living through the deadliest years of the AIDS pandemic.’’
In 2019 the museum acquired a 1987 work created by contemporary American artist Jenny Holzer as a response to HIV/AIDS, which has killed 32 million since the early 1980s according to the World Health Organization.
Entitled “Laments: Death came and he looked like…” the work consists of a vertically oriented L.E.D. sign flashing with a word crawl, and a marble sarcophagus etched with the same text, written by the artist.
For Brown, the Holzer refers to mass media and fine art, evoking both modern technology and ancient burial practices.
With contrasting vertical and horizontal elements that stand up lie down, the work also appears to evoke “the living and the dead, both at the same time, and the new and the old,” Brown said.
Somber and bluntly assertive, the Holzer is a thoroughly contemporary response to plagues that have been part of human experience for millennia.
It’s also a reminder of how current events can endow great works of art throughout the museum’s collection with a sudden, sharp relevance.
I was a firefighter for many years. But because it was more than a decade ago, it often seems like another person wore those turnout boots, cinched that ax belt and ran into burning buildings. Yet when the Covid-19 pandemic hit a few months ago, my old first-responder instincts rose up.
I wanted to be of use. But I’d let my E.M.T. certification lapse, so the only thing I was really good for was staying at home. This was important, of course, but as someone trained to spring into action in the face of death and destruction, it also left me restless and dispirited. I became that annoying friend who harangued you about food supplies early on and inserted the numbers of daily deaths and projected casualties into every conversation, so that even my own family told me that I made them anxious and that they wouldn’t speak to me unless I stopped.
Once schools started to close, my wife, the illustrator Wendy MacNaughton, wondered whether we could offer a free live drawing class for kids. For a week, she said, a half-hour every school day. Why not, I thought. It wasn’t the front lines. But it would be a nice distraction. It would be a service to the harried parents. Besides I was the only other human in the house. Someone had to hold the camera.
We used what we had on hand: a smartphone and Instagram Live. It was a rinky-dink operation, but these were rinky-dink times. Kids love Wendy in real life (though we ourselves are kidless) and sure enough, once the camera turned on, Wendy was just the person you’d want your children to hang out with during a pandemic: funny, carefree, willing to wear an assortment of colorful hats, yet also steady and soothing.
The response was immediate. Parents were grateful for what I saw as cyberbabysitting. One week of videos turned into two, then three. And something strange happened. What first seemed to me to be a simple feel-good endeavor for children — Grab some crayons! Draw a dinosaur! — was actually something more.
“The first time I’ve seen him relax and focus today,” one adult said of her child, via email. Another said, “We are only a week into this home schooling thing and drawing is the only thing that my daughter is still interested in.” For all of us life had turned strange, but for kids this new reality resembled a sudden, undeserved timeout — play dates were prohibited, outdoor sports were canceled, simple routines were now upended. Yet something about drawing was providing a much-needed intervention. “My 7-year-old usually can’t sit still for five minutes,” a caregiver wrote. “But he draws for the whole 30 minutes.”
It helped that Wendy’s on-camera persona was a mixture of Mr. Rogers and a Cirque du Soleil unicyclist. She instinctively understood when to draw calming spirals and when to scribble wildly. Her rambunctious illustrations, silly dances and rotating art smocks, along with her there-are-no-mistakes-in-art attitude clicked with her kid audience. “Swoop outside the lines! Put polka dots on that tiger!” she’d exclaim. But there was something besides a zany master of ceremonies going on here. Adults reported that their children were drawing long after class was over. This was about the act of artmaking itself.
“It’s a symbolic language for your internal world,” Sarah Rubin, a psychotherapist who has been incorporating art into her work for decades, said when I asked why drawing was so absorbing for children during this crisis. “Everything that’s going on gets lodged unconsciously. This is a way to get it out and on paper. Now you can speak about the drawing instead of what’s hard to talk about.”
Ms. Rubin pointed out that, unlike many traumas, such as 9/11, the coronavirus is unfolding slowly. While this is agonizing for many, it is also an opportunity: Kids can work out their emotions while it is happening. This allows a head start on adjustment and healing. “The sooner the better,” she emphasized. “Not down the road.” Ms. Rubin also lauds the kinetic experience that drawing offers. “Art is movement in space,” she explained, much more enthralling than the two-dimensional computer screen used for online schooling.
Research backs up Ms. Rubin’s insights. A 2014 study by Judy Rollins and Ermyn King showed that the children of wounded soldiers who engaged in art activities, including drawing, during hospital visits, communicated better with their injured parent and adjusted faster to their disrupted environment. Other studies show that drawing allows children to visually work out ideas about the surrounding world at a time in their development when the ability to articulate can be outpaced by cascading emotions. Hand a kid colored pencils, in other words, and the trepidation and confusion of the coronavirus pandemic transmutes into striped penguins and swirling fuchsia lines.
School in its various forms is finishing up around the country, giving way to an uncertain summer. This week our #DrawTogether classes ended, too. We graduated tens of thousands of kids from over 40 countries who had drawn dragons and treehouses and heart spirals with us over the past 12 weeks. But the pandemic has not ended. Children will continue to miss their friends, mourn their absent playgrounds and community pools, and absorb adult stresses. Yet when Wendy asked if we should continue as “art camp,” I hesitated at first.
Just months ago, I was a writer; now, I was someone who worried about glare, whether the family dog would wear a weird hat for the class, and how to pan from paint set to paper. Sometimes I didn’t recognize myself (or my wife, who was now stopped on the street by 6-year-olds). But the pandemic, while disorienting, is also full of surprises. We pitch in where it matters, and a truer self can emerge. In my small way, I’ve been a first responder all along; drawing, it’s become clear, is vital first aid for kids.
NEWS RELEASE RAW ARTISTS ************************* RAW Artists announce the National Arts Drive, a three-hour community experience on Saturday, June 6, 2020, spanning throughout Canada, United States and Mexico.
Local artists will showcase their work while respecting social distancing – from windows, balconies, driveways, front lawns, workspaces, or appropriate commercial spaces. Community supporters are invited to visit participating local artists, performers, musicians and designers living in their community from a safe distance.
Collingwood resident and Orillia native Michelle Bylow is leading the charge in bringing the drive to Canada and Northern Ontario Communities.
“We are using all the resources available to us to continue our mandate of artists supporting artists,” said Bylow, executive director of RAW Artists Canada. “The drive will give artists visibility and financial support from their communities. 100 per cent of the proceeds go to the creatives”.
The Orillia & District Arts Council has joined as a community partner to help spread the word to Orillia and area artists.
“The success of the drive will depend on getting the word out to artists and their communities. We are thrilled to be working with the Orillia Arts Council and look forward to supporting the Orillia artistic community,” said Bylow.
The driving tour will be paired with a mobile website designed and built by RAW Artists. Art showcases will be identified on a map within the app, enabling drivers to plan their routes.
Using the site, visitors can support artists by liking, following and/or sharing artists’ work via social media, tipping artists through a touch-free pay app (i.e. Venmo, PayPal), and/or making future purchases from the artists online. All donations go directly to the artists.
Bylow and her team are aiming to register 10,000 Canadian artists for the event. RAW supports 10 different verticals within the arts community – film, fashion, music, visual art, performing art, beauty, accessories, photography, craft and technology. There is no charge for artists to participate, and they do not have to be members of RAW.
For more information on RAW Artists’ National Arts Drive, visit this website or this website.
About RAW Artists:
Founded in 2009, RAW is the largest independent, international arts organization in the world. RAW’s mission is to serve independent artists with the tools, resources, education and exposure needed to thrive and succeed in their creative careers. RAW is an online and offline platform that has showcased over 200k artists in 70 cities across the globe in multi-faceted arts events that draw crowds of 1,000+ attendees.
Due to the “Stay at Home” orders issued by the Canadian government; RAW Artists Canada has halted regular operations since March 15, 2020.
KINGSTON — City-owned marinas will operate under new measures meant to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Marinas at Confederation Basin and Portsmouth Olympic Harbour opened for the season on Friday.
“For many weeks, we have been working to ensure a safe and welcoming environment for our seasonal boaters to the municipal marinas,” Lacricia Turner, director of recreation and leisure services, said. “Staff has been trained in health and safety protocols. Additionally, we are asking the boating community to adhere and respect our new COVID-19 guidelines.”
Day and transient boaters are still not permitted while physical distancing measures are in place, but may be considered once the marinas are opened and operational for seasonal boaters.
The Canada Border Services Agency is encouraging residents to alert it to suspicious boaters arriving in Kingston who may be violating cross-border travel restrictions.
The Border Watch Line is toll-free, 888-502-9060.
Private marinas opened for the season earlier this month.
More affordable housing
KINGSTON — Forty housing units are to be built at a new mixed-income building on Wright Crescent.
The Kingston and Frontenac Housing Corporation broke ground earlier this week on the site at 27 Wright Cres.
“We are excited to have broken ground at 27 Wright Cres., especially during this challenging time when affordable housing has become even more important,” Mary Lynn Cousins Brame, KFHC’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. “The public funding provided was essential to making this project happen.”
The building is to include 10 rent-geared-to-income units, 13 affordable units renting for 20 per cent less than average market rent and 17 market rental units.
About $2.5 million in municipal, provincial and federal funding went into the project, along with a low-interest loan financing under the Federal National Housing Strategy.
“Affordable housing remains a top priority for city council,” Mayor Bryan Paterson added. “The current state of the world has only reinforced how important it is that we continue to make progress on affordable housing initiatives.”
Recycling, household hazardous waste agreement
KINGSTON — City council is to consider renewing an agreement to accept recycling and household hazardous waste from Loyalist Township.
At its meeting Tuesday night, city council is to consider a new agreement with the township to continue accepting recycling and household hazardous material.
The new agreement would continue an arrangement that has been in place since 2006 and has functioned “with very few issues,” according to a staff report to council.
Kingston’s material recovery facility accepts recyclables from the city and Loyalist, South Frontenac, Frontenac Islands and Central Frontenac townships, and material is sorted and marketed for sale.
Last year, material from Loyalist Township accounted for a little more than nine per cent of the total tonnage processed by the facility. The township paid the city about $133,000 for the service.
In 2019, almost seven per cent of visits to the household hazardous waste drop-off were made by township residents. About $19,000 in fees were collected for those drop-offs.
The annual spring opening of the household hazardous waste drop-off has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic as physical distancing cannot be provided.
Art in Douglas Fluhrer Park
KINGSTON — The city is looking to make permanent a pilot project that offered artists a space to paint street art and murals in Douglas Fluhrer Park.
The retaining wall behind Rideaucrest has been used for mural pilot projects in 2014 and 2017.
The city is now planning to make the art location a permanent feature of the park.
“The nature of street art and legal walls is that they are fluid, ever-changing, transient spaces where artwork gets created and painted over on a regular basis. They exist as a shared community resource that enliven public spaces and attract attention because they are colourful, energetic and engaging in ways that deviate from more familiar forms of public art,” a report to council stated. “They also attract attention because they tend to change over frequently and reference current issues and events with greater spontaneity.”
Since it began, there have been about 30 murals created at the space with only two minor vandalism acts in the past year.
The legal street art wall would require an exemption to be added to the property standards bylaw.
City staff estimate the site would cost about $2,000 annually to maintain.
City reverts to one-bag garbage restriction
KINGSTON — Residents will again have to pay for additional bags of garbage they place on the curb.
As of June 15, one bag can be placed out for collection without a tag, but any additional bags will require a bag tag.
Brought in as a response to the stay-at-home response to COVID-19 pandemic, the city since mid-March has permitted four untagged bags of garbage to be collected per week.
“The four-bag limit was a temporary measure to help individuals and families that were self-isolating, and to provide relief to sick or symptomatic residents who were encouraged to throw any items in contact with their face into the garbage,” Heather Roberts, director of solid waste services, said in a statement.
Bag tags can be ordered online at the city’s website and delivered within seven business days.
Restrictions on the yard waste drop-off, in place since mid-April, are to be eased on July 6.
“The changes to the use of the yard waste site have been put in place to help address demand and safeguard the health of those who visit and work at the public drop-off depot,” Roberts said. “Starting July 6, residents will be able to drop off yard waste again Monday through Saturday and will no longer have to wait until it is their regular curbside collection day.”
Only eight vehicles can be in the drop-off area at one time so there may still be delays.
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