The Cavalier Daily • by Isabel Junker • September 23rd, 2021
“We Hope This Art Finds You Well” is a small slice of hope in trying times. Everything about the COVID-19 pandemic is tiring — hearing about it, talking about it, and living through it is exhausting. Why spend any time looking for anything of value to hang onto here and there when you’d rather just forget about it altogether? Presented by WTJU, “We Hope This Art Finds You Well” does the effort for you in a two-part exhibition — one part online and one part in-person — which forms a beautiful as well as educational experience showcasing the perseverance of local artists over the pandemic.
The online portion of the exhibit is described as a living repository of audio recordings, videos, photos, and texts that will grow over the next few months. The first thing you see when you enter the site is a big reminder to keep coming back to see more art focused on COVID-19-related hardships. These hardships only make life more confusing and trying than usual, so having a place to come back to for solace that will keep providing new and interesting content is fitting.
This online gallery, maintained by both WTJU and The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, promises to be an inclusive platform for artists in the community and their memories of these past 18 months. As of now, the website introduces 21 artists and highlights many local art initiatives. And although the website is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in what artists in their community have been up to recently, it’s not a substitute for the physical show. If you live in the Charlottesville area, visiting the gallery should be a priority.
The exhibition itself is packed into a refurbished antique camper made into a gallery, located behind the WTJU radio station on Ivy Road. Inside is a small room with both walls covered in artist profiles with a big blue couch at the rear of the van. The entire aesthetic of the gallery is heartwarming, but the most charming parts are the details spread all around this small space. On every surface — the windowsills, the wooden boards holding up artwork, even the floor — there are either masks or bottles of hand sanitizer. As pandemic-related objects like these have become normal in our personal spaces, the sanitary decor feels like a comforting piece of home.
The exhibition itself covers an array of topics from music to activism to graphic design, and the van houses the personal stories and artwork from Charlottesville artists. These artists use their respective talents to express grief, hope, humor, struggle and memory in unconventional ways.
Artist Warren Craghead’s preferred medium is graphic posters that deliver timely and blunt messages to the public. In 2020 he wanted to spread awareness about the issues which mattered most to him. He ended up plastering posters that read, “DOWN WITH THE PANDEMIC BOYS,” “SCIENCE IS REAL, WEAR A MASK” and “YOU’RE GONNA DIE IF YOU DON’T GET VAXXED,” with corresponding cartoons all over town, making his views very clear. Craghead emphasizes the importance of repetition in his work — of continuing to draw and write and edit until he’s left with what he really wants to say. It was refreshing to see someone so aggressively encourage people to take health precautions, as if he’s saying, “Your selfishness be damned, do what you know is right.”
One of the most creative installations in the van was the blue couch pushed against the back wall. The “Comfort Couch,” as it is known, is an amalgamation of many of the featured artists’ sentiments on dealing with boredom during the pandemic. At the start of the pandemic, both guests and artists alike suddenly found themselves spending most of their time on their couches. One artist said they started using their time to sit and listen to music they once loved, specifically REM’s “Automatic for the People.” Another reported a sharp increase in reading books and another in cooking at home. One said they began a habit of birdwatching from their couch. The “Comfort Couch” is surrounded by windows and little objects that represent the moments of peace they found during the pandemic. There’s even a little birdhouse with a faux canary on the other side of the back couch window so visitors can take on birdwatching for the day too.
On the theme of comfort, WTJU’s own Nathan Moore, manager of the station, curated a “Charlottesville Quarantine Jams” playlist to share some joy and camaraderie with the exhibition’s visitors. Additionally, local musician Ivan Orr emphasized the power of music during troubled times. His installation explores the both difficult and rewarding transition into making music during the pandemic. In the beginning of the pandemic, Orr spent his time experimenting with virtual performances with a series of covers. He was one of the first virtual musicians on the local scene, collaborating frequently with The Front Porch and WTJU in a “Save the Music” series. Orr wanted to keep performing, even with a crisis at hand, saying, “With everyone at home, that means everyone is theoretically accessible.” Even under the gravest of circumstances, it is still vital to prioritize the arts.
Two of the biggest themes on display in the exhibit are accessibility and justice. The entire van had a philosophy similar to Orr’s — art shouldn’t be barred from anyone. Every installation had a barcode to scan so that any visitor could immediately have access to an extended portfolio of a particular artist’s work. The exhibition grabs people’s interest, and then they can go home with additional resources to learn more about each artist’s causes. Additionally, though seeing the exhibition is preferable to simply browsing the website, having online access to the exhibit is an advantage that most art exhibits don’t have. “We Hope This Art Finds You Well” is widely available to most people who want to experience it — and that in and of itself is worth celebrating.
Furthermore, the pandemic has both exacerbated and brought attention to many problems in America, specifically racism and police brutality, and multiple artists featured in the exhibition used their platforms to express their stances on these issues.
Leslie Scott-Jones — artistic director and writer and actor with the Charlottesville Player’s Guild — approaches her art from an Africana perspective. Her mission is to create more room for those whose stories have previously been ignored, and she works to create opportunities for Black artists. Her installation highlighted that she works with the Guild to “make sure every Black artist knows what it is like to be within a completely Black space.” During the pandemic, Jones even penned her own play called “Thirty-Seven,” which shares a Black man’s internal struggle with becoming involved in activism and his frustration with the constant battle of being Black in America.
The exhibition also features the work of Ézé Amos, a Charlottesville documentary photographer and photojournalist who is particularly interested in street photography. His installation featured many of his photos from his time protesting against police brutality in the summer of 2020. Accompanying these pictures is a quote by Amos on why he decided to warn protestors of an oncoming police raid while he was on the job — the quote reads, “I’m not neutral. I’ll be telling you a big lie if I tell you I go to these events photographing this protest as neutral. Yes, my profession tells me I should just take the photo and tell the story. But where is that story coming from? From what perspective? Last I checked, I’m still Black.”
The protests that erupted in 2020 and still continue today are a part of history, and for this exhibition to be a true time capsule of recent years, these movements’ impacts have to be recorded. The exhibition not only records this history but does so from the perspective of the passionate people who value standing up for what’s right over maintaining artistic objectivity.
“We Hope This Art Finds You Well” makes the pandemic less of a burden to think about. It frames the last two years as a time filled with not only loss and strife but also power and change — and it reminds us that this dichotomy is something we should all continue to grapple with, not ignore. And, at the end of the day, it’s a reminder that there are those special people who will always be able to make something beautiful out of tragedy.