'Art in the Time of COVID' exhibit helped artists, visitors face their grief, express themselves and memorialize lost loved ones
ADRIAN — During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Adrian Dominican Sisters community was a microcosm of the suffering and loss inflicted by the coronavirus. Of the then 219 residents at the sisters' motherhouse in Adrian — about 36 miles west of Monroe along the Michigan-Ohio border — 14 passed away from COVID-19 in the pandemic's first year.
The loss left the remaining sisters to process their grief, and many chose to do so through art. And so, from Sunday, May 1, 2022, through the end of August, the sisters hosted an art exhibit in their gallery at the Weber Retreat and Conference Center, titled "Art in the Time of COVID," featuring the work of eight women, including five sisters.
The gallery came about after Sr. Barbara Cervenka, OP, called together a group of fellow sisters and friends on Zoom to share the work they had created during the pandemic, said Sr. Suzanne Schreiber, OP, the coordinator for the sisters' gallery space, INAI: A Space Apart.
"It was an effort to both process the COVID reality and the pandemic and all that was going on and a lot of the loss that was happening, and the illness and death that was happening and the uncertainties, plus to give expression to our own creative selves," Sr. Schreiber told Detroit Catholic.
The "INAI" gallery — a Japanese word meaning "within" — was the vision of Sisters Barbara Chenicek, OP, and Rita Schiltz, OP, who passed away in 2015 and 2020, respectively. In the 1970s, the sisters made the old laundry a studio and gallery space, where they worked for approximately 40 years. When Sr. Chenicek died, the committee decided to make it a permanent gallery where they also could host classes and retreats.
The "Art in the Time of COVID" exhibit features a variety of art styles, from painting to photography to quilting, journaling and collaging and more. Visitors were invited to write the names of those lost to COVID-19 on a slip of paper and place it in a basket as part of the exhibit.
For one of the artists, Sr. Nancyann Turner, OP, the exhibit was a way to process the grief of losing friends.
"In one way, this global pandemic made us global citizens, so as you grieved these people you also knew of, you also saw pictures of New York City and Italy and France, and it was a chance to lament in a more community way," Sr. Turner said.
Sr. Turner, who has been a Dominican for more than 60 years, participated in the exhibit with multiple artistic mediums, including memorial quilts, collaging and creative journal entries.
"I made three quilts — the first one was a quilt of hope back when we thought COVID would be over in six months," Sr. Turner said. "The second quilt was called 'Lament,' and made with darker colors but with a sliver of light like the Psalms of Lament — there is always a glimmer of new light and resurrection hope."
Through quilting, Sr. Turner said, she was able to take the diversity of colors and shapes to create a new unity.
"I think it is another wonderful example of feminine creativity," Sr. Turner added. "In this time of hibernation and cocooning, it was a very comforting thing to work on each week and to remember again my mom and my grandmother as I selected and stitched those different colors, which helped me lament but also helped me have hope and peace."
The exhibit also included photographs of two other projects Sr. Turner worked on, including a memorial garden she created in memory of her own sister, who died before COVID-19. As she made it, it extended into a memorial of everyone she knew who had passed.
"It was a way to get outside and use soil and seeds and follow the legacy of my father, grandfather and grandmother, who were all farmers, so that was another way that I tried to create a place of beauty to honor the recent death of our own sister," Sr. Turner said.
Secondly, she contributed to a larger memorial project for those lost to COVID-19. In 2021, Detroit began to crowdsource for a public community art memorial to recognize the depth of loss in the region during the pandemic. Detroiters and citizens of southeast Michigan were invited to participate.
Sr. Turner decided to make memorial pouches for those she knew who were lost to the coronavirus.
"We lost 14 sisters to COVID that year despite our best effort, so I made a memorial for each of them, and then a couple of the kids I had worked with at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen also died, so I made one for each of them, too," Sr. Turner said. "It was like a sacred endeavor of trying to remember each of them and almost connect with them. Each of those little pouches included a little prayer or a little letter to them — something of a memorial to them. It was a very peaceful and sacred endeavor to me, of making the remembering tangible. And each memorial was different. I used beads and lace and yarn and stitches, and I just felt connected (to them)."
In the Adrian Dominican community of roughly 440 members, many of them are artists; Sr. Turner believes making art, although somewhat unofficially, is part of the order's charism. When she was little and taught the catechism, Sr. Turner learned that each person is made in the image and likeness of a creative God.
"I think part of our Dominican spirituality and our Christian spirituality is to respond to God's creativity and to use our creative energies for the good of others," Sr. Turner said. "There are a lot of direct services that we do for justice and peace and working against racism, but I also think there is a call to create beauty and a call to affirm people's yearning for the sacred."
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