As uncertainty, fear and anxiety practically plagued humanity at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, many searched for meaningful ways to connect with others virtually. With this in mind, Penn State’s “Viral Imaginations: COVID-19” project was created.
The project intends to serve as an online community for current and former Pennsylvanians of all ages to submit visual art or creative writing expressing their first-person, pandemic-related experiences.
Launched during Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order in April 2020, Penn State faculty and staff have been able to collect about 300 creative works, which will be preserved and archived after the end of 2021.
Even with the widespread availability of vaccinations in the United States, Viral Imaginations will continue accepting submissions to capture the experiences of individuals throughout all phases of the pandemic.
Michele Mekel, interim director of Penn State’s Bioethics Program and co-founder and co-principal investigator of Viral Imaginations, said she became part of the project because she wanted to provide an outlet for those facing difficult emotions.
“I need this right now, so other people probably need this right now too,” she said as she recalled starting the project.
She said it seeks to provide an avenue to create community, build empathy and increase understanding of the importance of the arts and humanities in times of crisis.
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Mekel said — even during such a dark time — many of the submissions continue to express “hope, resilience and empathy.”
The gallery, which is where all of the submissions are kept categorically on the website, reminds people that “everybody is going through the same exact crisis,” and no one is alone, Mekel said.
Similar to Mekel, Karen Keifer-Boyd, professor of art education and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, core project contributor, and one of the project’s founding team members, said she became inspired to participate in the project because she recognized the benefits of artistic expression throughout the pandemic.
Keifer-Boyd helped create lesson plans for teachers to use to engage their students with the collection.
The project will be useful for doctors, scientists and educators, Keifer-Boyd said. Studying the submissions on the page will lead to a better understanding of problems people had during the pandemic and how to help moving forward, she said.
“There is so much that can be conveyed in art that words cannot convey,” Keifer-Boyd said. She went on to say art is a powerful language that anyone can use to communicate, regardless of age or talent.
More specifically, Keifer-Boyd said she realized many of the creative work submissions expressed speculations about what may happen in the future regarding the pandemic.
“Now there is a new kind of fear,” Mekel said. “A lot of the artwork expresses concerns about what could happen if people do not get the vaccine.”
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Also working closely with Mekel and Keifer-Boyd is team lead and research intern Hannasy Rodgers.
Rodgers (sophomore-science BS/MBA) said she wanted to get involved in Viral Imaginations to be part of something purposeful and bigger than herself.
She said she wants to encourage people to be involved in the project and explore the project’s website to see if anything speaks to them.
The website also promotes related initiatives in its resources tab, she said.
“The main thing is for people to have an outlet during the pandemic,” Rodgers said.
Viral Imaginations is holding an online Ekphrastic Expression Workshop from 7:30-9 p.m. on Aug. 18 for all Pennsylvanians, according to Mekel.
Ekphrastic expression involves choosing either a creative writing or visual art piece from the Viral Imaginations website to reflect on and respond to, Mekel said. If people choose a creative writing piece, they will respond with their own visual artwork creation and vice versa.
Advanced registration is required at this link.
“We are in a pandemic right now,” Rodgers said, “but that doesn’t mean you have to limit your ability to learn and express yourself in different ways.”
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