Student Artists Reflect On COVID-19: It’s OK To Not Be OK

Merrimack student artists kicked off a new exhibition, “It’s OK To Not Be OK,” with a virtual opening on Friday, April 2. Housed in McCoy Gallery, the show features work from a newly offered fall 2020 course and grapples with everything from life during the pandemic, to civil rights and the rise of blind patriotism in the U.S. The exhibition will run through Friday, April 16.

  • “Generations of M: Milo, Me, Mom and Memere,” by Felicia Fishel, ’21, graphic design major.

In fall 2020, the Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) department had plans to offer a new intensive studio art curriculum for a small cohort of students. Led by Jonathan Latiano, assistant professor in art/art history, the course initially revolved around curating and ultimately staging a gallery opening. As COVID-19 restrictions continued, however, Latiano and VPA Department Chair Nancy Wynn decided to pivot.

“Knowing that on campus there were going to be a lot more open spaces, we started working with the administration to see if we could run this new course called Independent Studio 1,” Latiano says. “We thought, “What if we took this as an opportunity to do something really special?”

Watch Video of Exhibition

Since students would no longer be able to work in one large group due to COVID-19 guidelines, the idea was to offer individual studios to each of the six students already enrolled in the course. The students would invest their semester in the work itself, instead of focusing on the final debut of their work.

“The course really focuses on giving students their own space on campus that is theirs and theirs alone,” Latiano says. “We converted three classes in Sullivan Hall that were too small to hold regular classes. We cleared out all the furniture and protected the walls and the floor so they would make really nice-sized two-person studios.”

With the aid of Interim Provost Sean Condon and Dean Karen Ryan from the School of Liberal Arts, Independent Studio 1 students each had 24/7 access to their own artistic enclaves for the fall 2020 semester. While projects varied in content and medium, the final collection of student work marked the current moment from a myriad of perspectives.

From a series of family portraits in charcoal, negotiating age and fragility and vulnerability; to an overtly political piece entitled, “Blind Patriotism is the Death of Patriotism Itself,” that speaks to the ever-polarized political climate in the U.S.; to a series of comics that both question and perform absurdity, the show became more of a panorama than a single snapshot of a COVID-19 world.

“I’m a big proponent of thinking that artists are the ultimate stenographers of society,” Latiano says. “We have historians, scientists, journalists, documentary filmmakers – those people will really tell you the nuts and bolts of something, and I can read statistics and numbers on a page. But when you want to capture something like, “What was the horror of living during World War II,” you look at the art that was made during that time.”

In the virtual opening of “It’s OK To Not Be OK,” students discussed their artistic practices, their body of work and how they used the given time and space of the course to both work through the challenges of the pandemic and define themselves as artists. A hidden benefit to this new virtual landscape, the students now had the platform to discuss their work with others, answer audience questions and inform their works of art.

“I think this whole show exemplifies Merrimack students’ resilience to kind of bounce from one thing to another. I’m just really proud of the work that’s exhibited in this,” Latiano says.

The loose structure of the course allowed the students to consider themselves outside the strict marker of “student,” and rather develop more fluid artistic identities. The course put each of them in the driver’s seat, Latiano says. The final product was a body of work that is both powerful and vulnerable and also political and deeply personal.

Merrimack student participants included Abigail Amanto, David Andreghetti, Isabella Collins, David Driscoll, Felicia Fishel and Lauren Pardue.

The show will run in McCoy Gallery through Friday, April 16, and is open to all who have access to campus. Visit the McCoy Gallery to learn more about visiting hours, view past exhibits and see what’s coming in the future.